Sacrifices and Community

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood

I think that many people who are ready to become parents know that life will change drastically when that little person (or persons) arrives on the scene. I am guessing that a woman realizes it very soon into pregnancy, as her body begins to change and respond to carrying her baby. Upon visiting a doctor or nurse-midwife, she is given a list of things to avoid; and with each pregnancy, the list gains new additions and changes. Each change requires new choices about how to manage–what to eat, how much–and these choices often require sacrifices. But what of those things we cannot choose? And what about those who may sacrifice the health of their babies, or their own, by choices that were not theirs to make. This week I was struck again with the hard things we wrestle with as parents; not just food choices, but sacrifices that require life changes.

For Steingraber and her husband, Jeff, such sacrifices are unsettling. “Why,” she asks him, “is there no public conversation about environmental threats to pregnancy?”

Why does abstinence in the face of uncertainty apply only to individual behavior? Why doesn’t it apply equally to industry or agriculture? …It’s pregnant women who have to live with the consequences of public decisions. We’re the ones who will be raising the damaged children.

Reading Steingraber’s sixth chapter, “Rose Moon,” this week, I had a chilling realization. Living in Madison, I think I have a false sense of peace when it comes to environmental issues. Madison is continually listed in this or that “top ten” list–the top ten best places to raise a family, the top ten bike-friendly cities, etc. It is the nature of this small city (in contrast to a metropolis like Chicago) to let the environment–and our human activities within it–loom large over everything. Environmentalists, both the activist and academic varieties, are common here, and environmental issues come up naturally–they are “in the air,” so to speak. When I read Steingraber’s discussion about coal, I thought of the huge mound of coal on the University campus that we walk by routinely. That coal powers a large chunk of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the UW Hospitals, and more; how much pollution is poured into the air and water of this family-friendly town? Do people think of that when (or if) they make choices to move here? Or do they rely on a progressive, “green” image? Our “green” air and iconic lakes are filled with toxins produced by one of the prides of our city! The coal “mountain,” the second-largest source of pollution in Dane County, is walking distance in Madison from the hospitals where my daughters were born and from the church we attend each week. On the way there from our home, we pass the county’s largest source.1

When I spoke to my husband about this, he said that the coal at the UW plant is being phased out due to a Sierra Club lawsuit, and that there are real changes in how Wisconsin is planning to handle coal-generated power. I was pleased, but I still wonder about the conditions now. Our society can’t change in an instant; both the UW (which produces reams of environmental research and invaluable leadership) and MG&E (from whom we purchase wind power for our home) still burn massive amounts of mercury-bearing coal–and it has been a long, cold winter. Does the coal phase-out do anything for those who may suffer unknowingly, because of the unavoidable pollution of coal?

Steingraber’s dilemma doesn’t have to to with the local power plant, but with her husband’s job. A sculptor and artist, Jeff works in old lead-painted houses, doing restoration work and decorative painting to pay the bills.

Jeff is more at ease with a paintbrush and a sander in his hands than anyone else I have ever met, which is one reason (among others) I fell in love with him…. His blood lead levels are double that of the average American male…. He’s paying the price for reckless decisions made three generations ago.

They decide that he must quit his job because of the lead that he would bring home on a daily basis. They decide to stay in their historic neighborhood, with under-layers of lead paint and contaminated soil, but question that decision later. “In ignorance, abstain,” runs the principle of doing no harm, but Jeff wonders:

“Don’t grow our own root vegetables. Quit a job I like. How come we’re the ones that have to do the abstaining?”

His job and their garden are not the only casualties of pollution. Both Steingraber and her husband have a family heritage of fishing, but what happens to that tradition when the fish are too contaminated for their daughter to eat? What pollution requires them to avoid is not a few mere conveniences, but the context of their own lives. “In a mercury-poisoned world,” Steingraber asks,

what happens to the knowledge that Jeff has, handed down from his father and his father before him, about how to clean and gut a bass? About what kind of water pickerels like to hide in? About how to hang trout over an open fire?

I also learned about fishing and hunting in my family; I know the seasons for trout, deer, pheasants, and ticks. I know the stories deer hunters tell, and I’ve eaten blueberries and raspberries in the woods. This kind of knowledge is not the kind that is bought and sold in packages in the marketplace, or stored on a shelf or a file for when you need to look it up. This is the kind of knowledge that we live with, that we inhabit with each other. If we cease to inhabit it, this kind of knowledge is diminished or lost. It is tradition, handed down from parent to child in the daily practices of human communities in a world we must share; and when the world is poisoned, broken, we share that brokenness as well.2

Do we even know how much we’ve lost, how poisoned we are, how far away we’ve been driven from the land? By connecting the science of toxic materials with our human knowledge of childbirth in Having Faith, Steingraber gives us new knowledge; what would it mean for us to inhabit it? What daily practices grow from this knowledge? Will we eat a locally grown meal once each week? Will we be frightened away from the dirt in the yard and the water at the beach, or will we count it all the more vital for our families that we garden and swim? Will our lawn-care be part of our lake-care? Will we look up sources of pollution, and talk about them with our neighbors and legislators? Will we insist that new ways of doing things be found, so that the old ways are not poisoned to death? If necessary–and it may be necessary–will we march on Washington?

  1. “UW Coal Goal: Comply With Clean Air Act,” The Capital Times, Nov. 8, 2007.
  2. “Adam knew his wife Eve,” we are told in Genesis 4, “and she conceived…” Her first child was a farmer, whose name meant “produce.”
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  1. Good to have you back, Nicole! And I love the snow on the website – very fun. I’m still loving it outside, too, though I confess I don’t do the driveway ploughing here on the farm, my husband does. And he’s sick to death of it.

    This chapter told a lot of stories familiar to mine: our four kids all had high lead levels as toddlers, having been born in Chicago and allowed to play in the dirt outside our wood-frame home. I mistakenly believed it healthy for children to crawl, play, dig and even lick up a bit of dirt now and then. Tonkas were some of the first toys we invested in as new parents. But then our pediatrician informed us of the results of the blood tests required for every Chicago child: our kids were all at 6 or more ppm. At 10 the state could take our home from us. So we hired a private consulting company to find out where the problems were, and they were everywhere. The dirt next to the house was the highest concentration, since the homes had once been wood-sided and repeatedly scraped and re-painted with lead. We stopped growing vegetables entirely and converted the gardens to perennials. The interior trim, all lead. The consultants’ advice was to cover it all in packing tape until the kids were less vulnerable. We didn’t take that tape off for over a decade – by then we were re-painting everything in preparation for selling the house, and the kids were all pre-teens. Still, we sold the house to a family with toddlers, and they were duly informed, but the situation had been the same in every house they’d looked at.

    Well, I’m determined that my grandchildren will enjoy playing with Tonkas here on this Wisconsin homestead, and much of our work here involves healing the land, though more from compaction and pesticides than lead. But it’s sobering to read the high rates of cancer and other ills Steingraber reports in farming-country families. One our closest farmer neighbors here has lost two members to cancer in the past three years. All of the farms adjacent to ours use conventional methods: herbicides, pesticides, GMO varieties that cross-pollinate with our heirlooms. This is the air we breath now.

    There is no longer any possibility of escaping the effects of environmental toxins anywhere in the world. And that’s a sobering thought, but perhaps a hopeful one. We have no choice, really, but to pull together, city and country, first world and third, to make a change. And how will we do it?

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