I met the sunrise in the rolling rows of peaceful, dew-dusted vines on Flying Plow farm in the aptly named, Rising Sun, Maryland. Tanya turns to me; with great care and joy, she asks if I recall when we last excavated sweet potatoes from the soil together, almost exactly two years ago. “Yes, when we decided to live together! The decision came so naturally. It is hard to imagine what life would look like if we hadn’t decided to live together. And here we are now…” we reminisce as we reprise the harvesting of sweet potatoes that morning. I can’t help but feel that our fates are tied to this act.
As I dig my hands through the soil and unearth sweet potato after sweet potato, I feel my connection to the planet: the cycles of nutrients flowing from sun to plant to body, and the ancient act of collecting my sustenance from nature. Time and space are transcended. I feel connected to agrarian women all over the world; those who are digging up tubers in South America and those cultivating rice fields in Asia. I feel connected to my ancestors; those whose genes live on in my being today; generation after generation that have felt the soil and known what it is to pull sweet sustenance from the ground beneath us, wipe away the dirt, and hold life in our hands. It is as if I held a newborn, held the essence of existence in my hands, emerged from the earth as a human emerges from a woman’s body.
The most powerful image from that morning still radiates in my mind; it is the mother with her young child held to her chest, wrapped together by a fabric sling. They wander the organic farm together, stopping to taste the cherry tomatoes, touch the horse’s warm nose, smell the sweet zinnias, and listen to the chickens clucking. It stays with me, how much I want to be the woman in that moment: to share the simple beauty and pleasures of nature with a young child’s pure curiosity and delight. I think: this is how I want to raise a child. How do I make this a part of my life, my future?
Later that evening, I found myself doubting if I even want to bring a child into this sick world. Overwhelmed and frustrated, I could only think of the suffering that surrounds my life and loved ones, and my perceived incapacity to save any of us. This was confronting the reality of toxic chemical exposure and its relation to the rising levels of cancer and mental impairment. In addition to many other disturbing facts, I read in Jenkins’ What’s Gotten Into Us, that “In 2005, an examination of “the pollution in newborns” found some 287 industrial chemicals – including 180 that cause cancer, 217 that are toxic to the brain, and 208 that can cause birth defects or abnormal development – in umbilical cord blood taken from ten babies around the United States” (Jenkins, 36). Looking around the room, I felt suffocated. The rug, the drapes, the blinds, the couch, the pillow, the water, my own clothing! Toxic chemicals were seeping into me every moment of every day. How do I not feel it? Why does my body have an allergic reaction to completely natural and harmless pollen, yet I can’t really tell that there are flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, and a whole host of unwanted chemicals building up in my body every day, since before I was born? What if I have that baby? What if the toxins in my body cause a birth defect? What if my partner dies at an early age from cancer? What if I die at an early age from cancer? What suffering! What tragedy! What can I do? We will start our own closed-system organic farm in the Swiss countryside, and use as little plastic as possible. That will keep me safe.
But, in reality, there are “no safe places” (Jenkins, 41). Earth’s closed system circulates synthetic chemicals throughout the entire world, no matter how remote. Eating organic produce and maintaining an active lifestyle is not enough to protect myself. How easy it was, to marvel at the beauty of life and birth. How easy it was, for human destruction to shatter that image and throw me into confronting the reality of death and suffering due to chemical exposure. Where do I go from here? At this moment, I really feel that there is nothing I can do, aside from continuing to type on plastic keyboards in fire-retardant rooms while wearing synthetic fabrics and drinking my “filtered” water. Hopefully, more contemplative experiences of transcendence in nature, as well as the completion of What’s Gotten Into Us, will provide me with some sort of direction.