Lawn Follies, by Ahmad Abdullah

After attending Professor Jenkins’ lecture on Thursday, where he discussed the great follies in the current suburban lawn paradigm, I decided to embark on a small scale journalistic opportunity to see what drives the American public towards a perfectly manicured lawn. Waking up to the loud and buzzing sound of lawn mowers on Saturday morning, I decided to take a small morning walk to see exactly what people did to their lawns and to possibly question some neighbors regarding their peculiar habits and practices. After walking down the .3 mile stretch of road that leads to my house – which accounts for exactly 19 houses – I noticed that 6 houses were engaged in lawn mowing, 3 were spraying Round-Up, and 2 were using leaf blowers to clear some leaves and grass residues – probably left after mowing the lawn. In all, 11 out of 19 houses were occupied in some lawn related activity. I quickly realized that Professor Jenkins was not joking when he said that the weekend of the average American male was to simply do lawn maintenance, watch football, and do some more lawn maintenance.

Mustering up the courage, I decided to confront 2 people and ask them why they believed lawn maintenance was so vital to their everyday lives. The first neighbor I approached was one that was notoriously known to cut his grass every week, without fail. I asked, “Why do you cut your grass so often.” He answered, “The same reason you cut your hair so often.” I stood there in an awkward moment of silence. “Surely this cannot be his reason,” I told myself. I then went on and said, “So, you mow your lawn every week so that it looks good?” He replied, “Yes, a mown lawn is a man’s way of showing that he is responsible and has a good life.” I could not believe what I had just heard. This response was a regurgitation of the typical 1960’s suburban family when the media used to portray the idea that “the state of one’s lawn was considered a public declaration of one’s allegiance to the American Dream (Jenkins, 2011, pg. 172).” In other words, “a manicured lawn was the clearest possible sign that a home owner was both honorable and trustworthy – that is to say, not a communist (Jenkins, 2011, pg. 172).” This prehistoric rhetoric clearly shows how brainwashed our society has become in terms of lawn maintenance – people cut their grass simply as a status symbol.

The second person I approached was a typical “green lawn addict.” This man had the uncontrolled addiction to a lawn that exempted a perfect dark green hue, had no signs of crabgrass, and was extremely soft to the touch. In other words, this is the classic suburban man that yells at children for walking on his grass. As I approached him, I asked, “Why do you spray so many chemicals on your lawn? Did you know that not only are those chemicals bad for you and the environment, but a perfectly green lawn fosters almost no eco-diversity (Jenkins, 2011, pg. 190)?” He replied, “Who would want vermin in their lawns anyway? My lawn is mine alone. I want to be able to sit on my property without being bothered by other creatures that don’t belong.” I then tried to explain that different bird species are suffering, quoting from Professor Jenkins’ book that “wood thrush is down 48 percent, the bobwhite is down 80 percent, and bobolinks are down 90 percent (Jenkins, 2011, pg. 191-192).” His reply to the statistical barrage was one that I will remember forever: “So what! Less birds means less bird poop.”

Although disappointing, the investigative study proved to be extremely valuable and eye-opening. I found that the main drivers behind the classic manicured lawn is the combination of primitive human dominance over nature, the prehistoric cultural correlation between success and aestheticism, and the mere ignorance of the public to the wider consequences of their actions. The two individuals I confronted exemplified the notion that our public seems to be caught in a trance that leads them to “maintain an image of their country that is at least a hundred years out of date (Jenkins, 2011, pg. 190).” In order to truly make a difference in terms of public and ecological health, we must first re-evaluate the current consumer culture and focus our efforts on education. Education will lead to an increase in awareness, an increase in responsibility, and the proper prioritization/allocation of resources. Birds cannot be solely remembered for their white excrement, but must be appreciated for their valuable contribution to the ecosystem.

Animal Cruelty and Veganism, by Kacie Brandenburg

Let’s just say that the speaker on Thursday’s class scarred me. It was not her appearance, an honestly, not even what she said that scarred me. It was the visual aids she used. The film specifically was the metaphorical drop of water that breached my levee of comfortable ignorance. I left that class in utter shock, and my values and morals and emotions were all so shot and twisted (I felt like my whole life was a lie), that I called my friend and demanded to speak about her vegetarianism. I wanted to change my eating habits at that exact moment. I would start immediately. Aldo Leopold asserts in A Sand County Almanac & Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation that “there is some virtue in eagerness, whether its object prove true or false. How utterly dull would be a wholly prudent man, or trout, or world!” and I tend to agree (37). Maybe my inaction before made me dull, but my great eagerness (and ability) to change right now made me feel alive and interesting. So change I did.

I never ate a lot of meat before Thursday’s class anyway, but the YouTube film the speaker showed, “What Cody Saw Will Change Your Life,” made sure I would never eat meat again. Leopold’s Almanac is full of one-liners that completely describe my mental process after watching that film. He states that “we grieve only for what we know” because it is easy not to care about what we don’t know (45). Ignorance is bliss, society tells us, as it grinds up male chicks because they won’t lay eggs.

Before I knew about the chicks, I had no real problems with chicken or eggs. There were worse things happening to pigs and cows, right? Wrong. Animals are all treated poorly in industrial farming, and our ignorance (or extremely low morals—which I hope is not the case) is letting it happen. Leopold writes that education is “possibly a process of trading awareness to things of lesser worth,” and I notice that in most of my own education (18). How is it possible that I know 92 prepositions, but not the origin of the banana I just ate? Why is my education so focused on small parts of small concepts when the entire world needs to focus on larger issues to operate effectively? What else am I missing? I understand that we need people to specialize in anything from open-heart surgery to US and foreign policy and law to the 1920s. But I also yearn for more comprehensive education about larger, essential, everyday topics: food, chemicals in products, politician’s platforms, cultural customs, and perspectives of oppression from the oppressed to name a few.

After talking to Rachel (my vegetarian friend), I decided that vegetarianism is a great starting point. It is obtainable, not that difficult, and healthier anyway. I told her that my overall goal was to become a vegan, but that I know that I cannot commit to that for now. I meditated. I created a timeline of change. I will, in the next sentence, put the timeline out in the world. I started vegetarianism Thursday, on December 27th I will start veganism for two days a week, and on February 16th I will be a vegan every day before 6pm. I will care more deeply about the food I will plant and harvest on Nancy’s farm, because it represents almost everything that I will eat for the rest of my life. I know I cannot fully commit to veganism now or in the near future; but at least a majority of my day will end up without animal products. I will change. And I will change now.

Problematic Economics, by Rodger Carter

I vigorously scratch the crown of Bentley’s gray-black wool-covered head. He likes it. I smile because he is like a dog. I am happy. I walk away. I come back. I go help Nancy. I come back. He sees me and comes to the fence so that I will give him attention. I am happy. I feel loved and needed.

My thoughts transition to money. I ask how much these sheep are worth. Nancy tells me Bentley cost her $4,500. She mentions 12 pounds of his wool may end up going for $1000 at the fair. Why did I ask about that? I was just so happy interacting with him not as a price tag, but as a subjective being. I think those thoughts reflect an obsession with money that is endemic in me and probably in our society.

Lately, I have often found myself reflecting about this tendency. Is it necessary to look at everything from an economic or monetary viewpoint? I became much more conscious of this after reading and rereading Aldo Leopold’s famous essay, The Land Ethic, published in 1949. He discusses his viewpoint that as a society, we need a “Land Ethic” or a set of morals that inform members of society how to treat the land (the soil, the water, the birds, the trees, the deer, et cetera).

Leopold talks about how rather than acting as citizens of the land, we have been acting as conquerors, systematically taking what we want, and destroying the rest. In this system, landowners will rarely, if ever, decide to do something that benefits the environment, while impinging on their bottom line. They can be convinced to maintain environmental structures that provide economic benefits to them, but often their positive economic effects are not discovered until after their destruction has been long underway. Leopold gives the example of the role that trees of low harvest value play in the forest community. For a long time forest managers in forests for harvest did not plant beech trees because they do not sell for very much money. However, many years after this practice of disregarding low-value trees started, beech trees were found to build up soil fertility. After this discovery, forest managers realized that including them leads to better harvest.

An example of the destruction of something in the environment that resulted in negative effects on society is that after World War II, many swamps were filled in with dirt and converted to housing sub-developments. At the time, most people didn’t know that swamps have many economically valuable effects including absorbing storm surges, serving as nurseries for economically important fish, and filtering runoff. These discoveries were not made until long after many square miles of swamp were destroyed. In this case landowners could be persuaded to adjust land use to help society, but only with “an outstretched palm.”

This view of the world, where we will do things that protect the environment only when we will see an economic benefit, is problematic. Some parts of nature have economic benefit and would be saved like certain trees and swamps, but anything that doesn’t fit the mold will be discarded. Leopold gives the example that in Wisconsin, only 5% of plants of animals “can be sold fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use.” The other 95% have no immediate economic benefit, but nonetheless, they are necessary to the stability and resiliency of the ecosystem by virtue of their presence alone. In ecosystems, every species have evolved to fit a niche. Removing a species is akin to knocking out a leg of desk. On a more global scale, biomes such as deserts, the tundra, and prairies will be modified without regard for how those changes that will affect what currently lives there.

Evidently, we need a shift in how we view the land to avoid the destruction of the biotic communities as well as anything that doesn’t serve an economic function. The ultimate end result of inaction will be that Earth will be rendered sterile. How far along we get on that path is determined by how soon we act. Leopold proposes a solution to how we should act, saying that, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Acting in his proscribed manner would be difficult to adapt to for someone in our culture, but the acceptance of his land ethic would lead us away from our destructive tendencies.

Since reading the essay, I have many times detected the primacy of economics in conversation and in people’s views, whether it be at a Symposium on Global Health where the one of the key reasons discussed for improving health outcomes is that it is more inexpensive in the long run, during an argument about why neighborhood associations should not be able to force people to make environmentally harmful decisions such as mowing the lawn(the reason given for having regulations was to maintain property value), or even in my thoughts such as when I was talking to Nancy about the sheep.

So, is this emphasis on economics good, bad, or neutral? Currently, I am in the process of reading a book on economics called The Soulful Science that argues that many of the critiques of economics are unfounded. Leopold on the other hand would argue that economics are for the most part negative. As for me, I think that economics could be a good thing for our society if a couple conditions are satisfied. The first condition is that the population accepts a land ethic. This way monetary concerns would not effect how we treat the environment in the same way that, in our current society, money does not effect how we treat other people. Killing a forest might be equated with killing a person. The other condition is the inclusion of the effects of environmental damage into models of economic growth. That way people would understand that in the long term, environmental degradation decreases economic growth.

Animals like Bentley have innate value in the same way that people have innate value. While economics can be useful for long-term decision-making, I think it is too reductionist and it should have no place in our everyday thoughts, especially how we think about each other (and animals).

A Walk Through the Divine, by Dan Cole

With a couple hundred miles of pavement behind us, we are delivered to a new home. The Blue Ridge Mountains crawl up over the horizon, miming the eons of tectonic activity from which they were formed, just as they now take form in view. A wisp of fog wanders from my throat to the rhythm of “Shenandoah,” joining the veil settled on the valley in the morning cold. The rolling ridges are coated in dense second-growth forest, emblazoned with the seasonal colors of bare carotenoids and anthocyanins. The winter air is quiet and heavy with awe. It sublimates out and collects on one’s clothes. I must choose my words carefully in constructing this place. Geopolitically, it is a national park, and biologically it is a massive ecosystem, but today such implications escape me. Standing there on the shoulder of a giant, looking out over seas of granite, this place is a temple.
My mind tumbles through an excruciating hike, but with each successive mile, I leave my troubled thinking behind. I become a spectator to my pain. The trail cuts through wood that would otherwise be impassible, and this forest is only about seventy years regrown. I try to imagine the America that settlers fought so hard to dominate centuries ago. I understand why they felt these trees had to die. Upon entering the valley, I felt myself shrink. To the man who believes himself to be God’s final product, a creature for which the whole world was created, standing in the company of mountains is threatening. The ego is challenged.
As the sun drops below the tree line, the party drops its packs for the night. Following us into camp is an all-encompassing cold, one that saturates the clothes but is at the same time not unkind. Over the fire, a new friend pops corn that he grew in his backyard, caramelizing it with brown sugar. He and the other men cook wild-shot venison, of which I try a taste; this is in fact the only kind of meat that I am comfortable eating. My housemate bakes Milburn Orchard apples and brews tea from the spruce and blackberry he collected along the trail. The act of eating after intense exercise is sublime, spiritual even. I wonder if this is what Iftar is like after fasting on Ramadan or break-fast on Yom Kippur. Eating takes on a new significance in feeling like you’ve worked for it.

I have never seen a sky so dark. The Universe is wallpapered with the lightest background-radiation-grey, sprayed with millions of stars and framed by the silhouette of outreaching maple arms. Four of our party, some of my newest and conceivably best friends, hike out into the Void. We lie out on a bed gifted to us by the pines and the birches. In the Appalachian blackness, all huddled together, I don’t know where I end and they begin. Four loving, honest, wholesome voices speak out anonymously. The boundaries distinguishing us reveal themselves to be arbitrary and increasingly tenuous, and so as for those distinguishing us from the soil, and the soil from the trees, and the trees from the sky. Do my senses fail me now, numbed by the mountain air and obscured by darkness? Or was I yesterday anesthetized by ubiquity of strangers and blinded by the harsh, scrutable visibility of “civilized” life?

With the fire quenched, the cold follows me to bed. The forest continues to speak throughout the night, with the voice of the wind through the canopies, the hoots of owls and the cries of foxes steeling themselves for the coming winter. They and the bears hold dominion over this place, not us. This is the mortal fear the settlers must have felt. In their cowardice, they set out to tame this place, to wage war on its residents, human and animal alike. I can now say with confidence that this was not a display of strength, but an act of weakness.

The next morning marks the end of our observance, hiking our way out of hallowed ground and starting the long drive back to the realm of the profane. Months of experiences with these friends in Newark couldn’t compare to how we grew together that single night in mountains. In Shenandoah, cold is kind, fear is comfortable, food nourishes more than the body, and persons become people. Out there, the very act of being is a walk in through the Divine.

Advances and Consequences, by Trevor Hall

While I would not identify myself as catholic, or even religious for that matter, the Pope’s continued talks about environmental stewardship really resonates with me. This weekend while watching the Pope speak, one thing that stuck with me was the reasoning that he gave for the utterly abusive relationship humanity have taken on with nature, and in extension, ourselves. He says that damage done to the environment are a product of “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity,” which in the process degrades not only what people picture as the environment, but also our own bodies and generations to come. When I was reading this week’s reading, it struck me that in the face of technological progress, the rapidity at which new methods of building and creating housing materials have no time to be properly examined for their potential harmful side effects. Therefore the experiment must be conducted with those unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of the products. When I think of my house compared to the countless housing developments that pop up every week along route 273 and in Newark in general, the distinctions between the two become more and more obvious every time I make the ride along Telegraph Road to the Fair Weather Farm. Growing up I remember the thick wooden beams with dowels holding them in place, the stone foundation, the quarter-inch thick shale that hasn’t been repaired since we moved in 20 something years ago. My house, as with many houses in the periphery of Lancaster City, were built nearly 200 years ago and still are more durable and aesthetically appealing to those built in the last sixty years, despite over a century of technological “advances”. The synthetic replacements to the old way of doing things have introduced chemicals that physically give off an odor (sometimes), so much so that the familiar smells of old wood is replaced with noxious fumes of flame-retardants and formaldehyde in the walls.

It is then that I began thinking about the next thing the Pope discussed, that as a byproduct of the unquenchable hunger for power, the poor are tossed aside by the power hungry. It dawned on me through watching Food Inc. that the transition from agrarian farming to factory farming took along with it the honor and the monetary benefit of farm life. Through our disconnection from those who make our food, we are satisfied with allowing a handful of companies own a vast majority of food produced, and subsequently care less about the individual farmers being exploited by big business. The image of a farmer gets plastered on every product in the grocery store, yet the farmer lifestyle is nonetheless left in shambles compared to its former self. But then I compare the undocumented workers that were seen kicking chickens and shoveling cows to Nancy, with her upbeat demeanor and (slightly overly) optimistic attitude toward her farm. As I looked out over the several other enthusiastic, but ultimately untrained volunteers, it seemed that perhaps Nancy was spreading herself too thin. As long as this class is around to provide the resources to sustain the farm, I have high hopes for the Fair Weather Farm, but in its name lies somewhat of an ironic twist. For although Nancy can afford (both financially and physically) to do programs like outdoor yoga, hayrides, and the several others posted periodically on the Facebook group, it makes me wonder what the farm would look like without over 100 hours of combined extra man hours each week.

Formaldehyde, Fingers and Eyes by Hannah Sypniewski

It’s beet red, itches, and burns. The skin between my eyebrows and eyes peels off every time I rub it. Each time it becomes rawer than the rub before. What is this gross description off? It is what the dermatologist thought was an allergic reaction to formaldehyde in nail polish. I loved to paint my nails all the time, and they were painted with bright flowers the day I was in the dermatologist’s office.

I already tried asking other doctors what was wrong with the area around my eyes, but my allergist sent me here. After asking the typical questions about my skin, she took one look at my nails and told me to remove the polish and stop painting them. Every time I had polish on, and rubbed my eyes I was irritating the skin. In addition every time I painted them, the fumes from the polish also messed with my skin. I believe I was in middle school, so naturally I decided I would do what I want and not listen to her. But each day my eyes were getting more painful, and ugly too. Truthfully, when I didn’t have the nail polish on, my skin did heal and return to normal pretty well. My mom had said that they made nail polish that was formaldehyde and toluene free, and that I could try that in place of my regular nail polish.

Finding the ingredients on nail polish can be near to impossible without a microscope. The print is so small and the words so long you have no idea what is in it. However, if it is formaldehyde and toluene free then those words are in a bold and legible font. I started to buy some of the brands that bragged about being formaldehyde and toluene free, so that I could still paint my nails without irritating my face. I have so many allergies that I didn’t think twice about being allergic to the ingredients in nail polish. However, now that we have been reading What’s Gotten into Us? I have been thinking if it was so much an allergy at all. Reading this book is very disconcerting because it reminds me of the lack of safety in all the products I use every day. I usually feel pretty good about the minimal amount of products I use in a day, and the gentleness of them. Unfortunately for me, reading this book really rattled me and my confidence in the safety of my products. I wanted answers immediately. Thankfully in class we maneuvered around on a website that could more or less tell me the safety of my products. When I went home that day, I started to hunt around for what products I should be buying, as well as research the products I already used. Luckily, none of the everyday products that I meticulously typed into the search engine yield a bright red number ten. If I remember correctly, the highest was a five. I know that a five isn’t perfect, but if you compare it to a ten it can actually be quite reassuring. So with my little bit of research, I was able to take back some of my peace of mind. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last long.

As I read the chapter on water, I was once again disconcerted and rattled. Especially, since a lot of it had to do with the source of water that I will be using for the next three years. Most of the talk about water bottles has related to phthalates and BPA. To keep my peace of mind, I was able to tell myself that the reusable water bottles I have been using for years is proudly BPA free. However, the talk of disposable bottles versus tap water got under my skin a bit. With all the pollutants that get into tap water, it seems like an unsafe source of hydration. But the bottled water releases phthalates and may even be bottled tap water rather than spring water. So which is better? The end of the chapter briefly answered my question, but the answer wasn’t very comforting. Each has its downfalls, and at this point in the game it’s really hard to tell what you are putting in your body. We all need to better be in control of what goes into our body. It should be the easiest part of our life to control, but I argue that it is one of the hardest. Companies and corporations only increase the difficulty by never giving us the whole story. I would be thrilled if there were a lot tighter restrictions on what chemicals and substances were allowed in the millions of products and bodies of Americans.

Plants, Poisons, and Drinking Water, by Tim Lyons

As I sit in my plant propagation class down at the greenhouse on the south side of campus at the agriculture school my teacher every day goes over the chemicals used in commercial plant propagators operations. Methyl Bromide being one of them, a fumigated gas that is a sterilizer, is sprayed onto the “media” or the material being used to grow the plant in. The chemical comes in a brick like aerosol where it is placed on top of a media that is only 12 inches thick. The media needs to be on concrete or pavement due to its toxicity. The aerosol bricks are then placed on the media and a piece of wood with a nail attached, a canvas tarp is then placed over the entire operation to keep the gas trapped. Canvas is used instead of plastic because the plastic will melt. The wood with nail attached are then stepped on to release the chemical and it sits for 48 hours before the tarp is removed and the chemical is released into the atmosphere. The 1987 Montreal Protocol called for the phasing out of this chemical worldwide with a few exceptions, the United States being one of them. This chemical has been proven to be a carcinogen and a direct correlation to prostate cancer. Supposedly to be totally phased out by 2016. Further research shows that the chemical is also used to sterilize band-aides, hypodermic needles and other medical items.

My original thought was they let release this stuff into the air? My attention was soon diverted to the even bigger picture. In Mckay Jenkins book, What’s gotten into us?, he talks about water from our tap and the local tap water of Delaware. To me this was the most interesting chapter thus far. Last spring semester I took Jerry Kauffman’s watershed management class where we canoed down the Brandywine River. We analyzed watersheds and wastewater treatment plants and listened to his ideas on “the solution to pollution is dilution”. One of the most interesting topics we covered was storm water runoff, especially here at the university. If you take a visit to George Read and Independent Hall dorms you will see that they are essentially on the top of a steep hill and looking at the large pavement parking lot you can notice it runs off towards the lowest point of the parking lot. One of Jerry’s projects at the time was looking at the runoff of that parking lot into the White Clay Creek watershed below. After showing us pictures there was about a 4-6 foot vertical drop from the edge of the impermeable surface to almost a straight edge, muddy, eroded path heading directly towards the creek below. The pictures are astonishing, it almost looks like a waterfall. If you really think about it, making an estimate there are roughly over one thousand cars in that parking lot. All of the chemicals that they carry not including the sand and salt put down during the icy winters, runoff into one already damaged creek. Not that we get our water directly from White Clay watershed but it gives you an idea of what the farms, industrial buildings, living complexes that are in Wilmington or even upstream in Pennsylvania on the Brandywine. There are over 4 million linear miles of public roads in America not including 43, 480 square miles of parking lots and other impermeable surfaces, all of which directly leads to rivers and watersheds that eventually lead to wastewater plants. (143,Jenkins) That brings back chemicals like Methyl Bromide a chemical so strong that it is mixed with tear gas so you know when you are ingesting it directly because of its toxic effects; a chemical so strong that it can burn through plastic when it is released into the air. Whether it is released into the air or is sitting on the pavement it ends up into our water and eventually us. It is hard to say that there is nothing I can do about these chemicals reaching my body but ultimately it is the consumer world we live in and the one thing that is in my control is my direct decisions and work that will effect my generation and the future of the world.