Friday, October 23, 2009, toxics, and more

I just learned of two great sites to share with you that list safe cosmetics and how/where to find them. Take a look:

FACT: In the US, there are few or no laws to protect us from the use of hazardous materials in body and cosmetic products. You might be surprised to learn that you are putting anti-freeze (among other toxics) on your skin if you are using commercial skin care products. You might want to consider the alternatives....

The European Union is working on legislation for the prevention and use of toxics. It is time the US takes up this same sort of legislation. How can we make this happen?

For those of you who are interested in the idea of living eco-lifestyles--check into the "Eco Village" in Ithaca, NY, and "Findhorn" in Scotland....These are just a few examples of "real" places where people are living in ecologically balanced ways.... For those of you who think we can only dream, these places actually exist!

In England there is a movement to create "transition town villages," which are sustainable communities. "How" we live is a choice. Death, disability, and illness by toxins is not inevitable. It is a choice. Global warming is not inevitably going to destroy us. It is a choice.

News from The Mothering and Environment Conference

Here I am in Toronto. It is grey outside and the physical plant of York University is a bit dismal and reminds me of Stony Brook. I keep getting lost in the very many long and winding hallways. Yesterday I gave my keynote lecture on the 'polluted mother-nature body' in literature and film. The content of this talk is a large part of my book topic. So, my book is well underway.

Sandra Steingraber gave an amazing lecture in which she explored her writing of Living Downstream, Having Faith, and her new work on children's development (ex-utero) in a toxic world. Sandra never ceases to move me... She balances a brilliant discussion of the science of how our bodies work in "concert" with the chemicals and toxins we come in contact with, with her own personal experiences. She became an ecologist and began her work on cancer and the environment because of her cancer story. For cancer survivors like me, her work is a gift.

She also spoke about the connections between the onset of early puberty (which is increasing rapidly) and breast cancer. Girls are beginning puberty at younger and younger ages. Possible reasons for this are lack of exercise, diet, and toxic exposure. Here are the things I love about Steingraber: she makes science poetry--in discussing biology, ecology, and even chemistry, she uses metaphors and symbols that bring it to life for a literature person like me. She also brings her own cancer and mothering stories into the study and presentation of ecological science.

As a human being, Steingraber is very accessible. When I met her after the lecture, she spoke of her children in such tender terms and she asked me about my daughter and my cancer. I also found out that she is a poet. Poet and ecologist! Often, when she speaks, tears come to my eyes. But my brain fires off as well--her description of the brain and how it develops in utero--the strings, and webs, and networks. I am rapt when she gives her science lesson. Her detailed biological description of the birds and the bees (how babies are made) was just fascinating.

Steingraber's Living Downstream is being updated and a new version will be available soon. Living Downstream has been made into a movie and it will be out soon. I can't wait to use it in my classrooms.

I'm learning about pre-agriculture, pollution, goddesses, Findhorn, sustainable communities, wildness, conservation, climate change, and so many other things. More to come......

Monday, October 19, 2009

Superfund sites close to home! Be your own Erin Brockavitch for the day!

For those of you looking for fun activities with the kids this weekend, how about a fun trip to your local superfund site(s)?

This handy website will allow you to plug in your zip code, and voila, you'll have a list of your heaviest neighboring polluters. Addresses and maps are provided. It couldn't be easier!

My scorecard comes up with a whopping 6 superfund sites in my very own county. My, that is welcome news. Names for chemical pollutants are listed for each site and they ring familiar bells from Hollywood movies like A Civil Action and Erin Brockavitch.

Why don't you go to and find out what your lucky number is? Learn about all the chemical spills near you!

If you are up for it, sign this petition:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

This morning...

I woke up and my backyard was full of hundreds of birds. I don't know what kind. I'm not Terry Tempest Williams--not a birder--they descended and ascended in unison, like a wave of fabric, a woman shaking out her sheets. Down and up, down and up. I was not wearing glasses or contacts and the world was still fuzzy.

Sometimes I find myself consumed with this environmental thing. Carbon paper. I just found a link that discussed the dangers of carbon paper. I'd forgotten this. You know the little receipt slips you get in the grocery store for credit card or cash purchases? Those innocent looking pieces of paper are toxic. Wash your hands carefully after touching them. Patti Wood told my ecofeminism class about this last spring and I forgot all about it. So yesterday, every time a clerk would hand me the receipt slip, I pulled away quickly in horror--refusing to touch it--as if the person had a disease. "Would you like your receipt?" "No!!!" What is worse? Someone getting hold of your receipt and using it to steal from your credit card account, or touching some lethal toxic matter? I'll leave the receipt, thanks. But what about the poor clerk? He/she has to work for a living and they have no choice! Gloves, I guess. Weird, weird, world.

Back to birds: I was reading Alice Walker's "Mother's Day 2004" entry. In it, she describes the abuse of chickens in the meat industry. Her writing is really powerful. I'm feeling guilty even eating eggs or cheese. Poor animals. Why does she title her work, "Mother's Day"? Does she see this as a day for "all" mothers to tend to all animals and living beings? Is mother's day a day to nurture our fellow creatures?

Climate Change.... take action:

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mothering and Environment Conference in Toronto, 2009

In late October, I'm flying to Toronto to the ARM conference. I will be one of several keynote speakers. One of my very favorite ecologists will be there-Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream and Having Faith. I'm looking forward to meeting her again and listening to her lecture. She has taught me so much and I am very grateful to her for doing the work she does.

My talk will be on ecofeminism and mothering in contemporary literature and film. I'm going to outline a definition of ecofeminism, explore its ties to mothering, and then connect these concepts to a number of novels (and some poetry and nonfiction) as well as to some films.
This talk is a kind of snapshot of the book I'm working on entitled, Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Literature and Film.

Giving this sort of talk helps me frame my book topic--there are so many things I want to cover in my book--at times it feels daunting. Should I narrow down my focus? Should it be more academic? In other words, should I refer to numerous critics and use many footnotes? If I do so, however, this will alienate non-academic readers. I want to open up my discussion to the general public, and I want to be inclusive of all kinds of readers, not just scholarly ones. I'm writing. I'm discovering. I know how to write a traditional scholarly book, but writing this kind of work is new to me--there is no clear formula to follow. Working outside of a box is thrilling, but also confusing. How do I know if it is working? Will I have an audience? Who is my audience?

My first chapter is autobiographical and it tells the story of my cancer experience and how it collided with my desire to be a mother.... Chemotherapy can kill a woman's eggs and when my cancer was diagnosed, I was childless. While I saw other cancer patients cry about losing their hair--I was crying because I knew I might never give birth and might never live to experience being a parent. There is more to this story, too. I lost my mother to heart disease a year before my own cancer diagnosis, and she also had cancer at her death. She had lymphoma and emphysema. My father died from melanoma. I came from a history of cancer. Would I pass this on to my own daughter--later, when I finally became pregnant?

So many people have cancer now. Is my story unique? No. My neighbor across the street has lung cancer and he only smoked for a short time many years ago. My cousin died at 34 from lung cancer and never smoked. Three women on my block have had breast cancer recently. A child we know well just got over two years of brutal chemo and bone marrow treatment for Leukemia. A friend's brother-in-law is dying from lung cancer and he never smoked. Four of my daughter's grandparents had cancer in their fifties; three are dead. These stories are endless. We all have them.

So why do I write and teach what I do? I suppose I feel that the more people who "know", the more people will finally stand up and say "enough." Young people (at least until very recently) who take my classes are shocked by this information about environmental degradation. They are blown away--"no one told us," they say. I feel they deserve to know, and they deserve the chance to make a difference. I teach my students about about incredible environmental activists--some of whom are quite young--who are making changes in the world. Greater change is needed from all of us. We wear breast cancer pins, but then we spray our lawns with pesticides, drive huge cars, bathe our bodies in chemicals, buy and eat poisoned food, drink from poisonous plastic bottles, and support companies that pollute heedlessly. I'm completely convinced from everything I read that our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals....For an incredible first-person story about the pollution in our bodies, see this great article in National Geographic,"The Pollution Within," by David Ewing Duncan:

Our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals. Our earth is filled with toxic chemicals.

These chemicals are causing cancer and possibly many other illnesses. Since the 1950s, with the advent of the use of pesticides and other industrial and chemical pollutants, cancer rates have risen exponentially. Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of pesticides in her book, Silent Spring. Sandra Steingraber has taken Carson's mission and applied it to what has happened to our planet since the 1950s. The polluting must stop.

I remember walking in strawberry fields when I was three and four--picking strawberries and eating them off the vine. The strawberry fields bordered our neighborhood: my house fronted the fields and I would cross the street to pick them. My yellow house was part of a new middle-class community built in the farm country of South Miami. Strawberries were sprayed routinely with DDT and other pesticides. Miami was sprayed routinely with chemicals to kill mosquitoes and other pests. My house was sprayed routinely to kill insects and, particularly, the dreaded cockroach, which we all feared. We swam in heavily chlorinated pools. There is a picture of my family and neighbors parading on fourth of July for freedom---children on bicycles, my sister as the statue of liberty, me on my tricycle carrying an American flag-- all of us so proud to be part of the middle-class dream in the early sixties. We couldn't see the chemical clouds around us, and we didn't know how we were being poisoned.

Did my cancer come from those chemicals? Did my parents' cancers come from these chemicals? Or from thousands of other chemicals I/we were exposed to throughout our lives?

What is the cost? My parents are both dead; cousins, friends, and aunt are dead. I almost died, and who knows how long I will live? Each year, twice a year, I am tested. MRIs, Catscans, sonograms, blood tests.

I am not alone. There are too many of us. It is easy to feel silenced and hopeless. Who am I to fight the chemical, tobacco, agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical industries? But we must act. We must learn. We must find alternatives to create the things we need and use--alternatives that are less toxic, less dangerous than those industries are now contaminating our planet with. Climate change activism is very important, and part of this re-energizing of the environmental cause includes finding clean sources of energy production. We must find clean sources of all industrial production. We must stop producing dangerous toxic chemicals. We once (not long ago) lived in a world without them. We need to go back to that time and relearn.

There is a book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Davis shows us how chemical and other polluting industries have worked hard to cover up the "real" reasons for the cancer epidemic--toxic chemical pollution. Early in the twentieth century scientists understood the relationship between pollution and disease. How and why was this information buried and ignored? And what is the price for this blatant lie?