Saturday, August 27, 2011

All Flesh is Grass

Yesterday I mentioned coming across the phrase "living downstream" in the corn section of The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, and noting the coincidence that it is the title of Sandra Steingraber's book on the relationship between the toxins we use in our industrious lives and our health. Her full title says it all: Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.

Like Pollan, Steingraber is a beautifully clear writer. Just as Pollan makes agribusiness clear to the layperson, Steingraber makes science clear to the non-scientist, for instance, in lively descriptions of benzene and atrazine. Both writers use anecdote and charming personal experience alongside hard evidence to make the issues clear and let their significance come home.

There are other striking parallels as well. Steingraber quotes Isaiah 40:6--All flesh is grass--at the beginning of her chapter 7, "Earth," and I've just finished Pollan's chapter 8, titled "All Flesh is Grass" at the beginning of his Part II: Pastoral: Grass.  Both writers refer to the importance of the Rodale Institute Farming Systems studies. And Steingraber elegantly sums up for my home state what Pollan detailed in his journey through industrial cornland--"Central Illinois is the beginning of a human food chain that ends in meat and snack food." (Steingraber, in "Earth" chapter).

In both books I read about natural nitrogen fixing in soil (legumes, lightning) and artificial nitrogen fixing, by way of fertilizer, the ingredients also leading, sadly, to meth labs in rural America. In Pollan I read about "the shock of electrical lightning, which can break nitrogen bonds in the air, releasing a light rain of fertility."

Steingraber puts it this way: "Lightning, that mad scientist, also fixes atmospheric nitrogen, which rains fertility into the fields." And makes it personal: "My cousin John considers himself a friend of lightning and looks for it in the night sky when storm fronts wake him from sleep."

I'm reading the second edition of Living Downstream (2010), updated to include the latest statistics and scientific information, but I read the first edition (above) a couple years after it was first published in 1997. A documentary came out last year, too, timed to the book's release, and I saw it here in central Illinois, with Steingraber and family members and filmmaker present.

I'm impressed once again, not only by Steingraber's clarity and mastery of the information, but also by her balance and her passion. She advocates a shift to organic farming (not, presumably, the "Big Organic" that Pollan sees as just more agribusiness) as a remedy for our public health and the farmer's plight but also clearly sees that farmers can't do this own their own. Like Pollan, she sees the complexity and near-inextricability of it all, and the difficulty of as well as the necessity for change.

Steingraber's cousin John, the "friend of lightning," is a farmer, a conventional farmer who uses chemicals, but not too many, as he has "a lot of respect for weeds." In the "Earth" chapter, she rides along with John during a harvest, saying that this is usually discouraged--"guests in the cab are distracting and can compromise safety"--and I'm reminded of the day my neighbor Gus offered to take my fascinated two-year-old with him on the combine. I imagined my son about half a row down frightened by the deafening noise, suddenly screaming and scrambling to get out...and thanked him but declined.

My "corn-fed" son, now 21.


Maureen said...

Great post, Kathleen. I admire Steingraber, not only for her beautiful writing but for her documentation of her experience of cancer. I wish more people were familiar with her book.

Interesting, all those parallels between the two books.

Kathleen said...

Oh, yes, it's a wonderful book, and the introduction to the second edition is a marvelous essay in itself!