Engaged with the World

Category: Environment (page 1 of 2)

Ugly Food Waste

Miguel de Cervantes

We celebrated the holiday season with an abundance of food. Roasted turkeys, sweet potatoes, greens, pumpkins, cranberries, pecans, wine – it would be unthinkable to omit the wine!

Some traditional holiday foods are those we don’t eat. For instance, some great-grandmother on one side of our family passed down a recipe for fruitcake-like cookies that have a half-life of a Hostess Twinkie. Everyone nibbles on one to be polite and insists that I really don’t need to bother with them next year. We toss the bulk of these cookies into the trash come January.

Of course, nearly all of the food we ate this holiday season came from a grocery store. It was beautiful food. Kroger heaps its bins high with out-of-season and exotic produce, not to mention the seasonal fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Food no longer has a season.

We pick out only the best to take home. Marred, oddly shaped, or irregularly colored produce stays behind. We study those “sell by” dates as though they are an oracle. Every once in a while, we purge our pantries and fridges, laughing about the discovery of new life forms while sheepishly wishing we hadn’t wasted the money or that we had planned our meals a little better.

Food waste Is No Laughing Matter

One-third of all food grown for human consumption either spoils or is thrown out. Here in the United States, we waste more than that – a full forty percent of the food we grow. Half of that waste never even leaves the farm because it isn’t considered attractive enough: misshapen carrots, undersized pears, crystallized honey, apples with dimples, scarred squash, mutant strawberries, off-color tomatoes. These fruits and vegetables have nothing at all wrong with them except that we humans have assigned them a ridiculously high standard of beauty.

Conservative estimates are that people throw away 20% or more of the food they actually buy. Imagine walking out of the grocery store with four or five bags, dropping one in the parking lot, and not bothering to pick it up. That’s essentially what we do.

Ugly Food Waste is Thirsty Business

Wasting food wastes the resources that create that food. Agriculture sucks up 80% of our nation’s freshwater supply, so when food goes to waste we waste all that water too. And in some places right here in the United States, fresh drinking water is disappearing.

Consider California’s Central Valley. More than 230 different crops grow there, amounting to nearly half of America’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts. The Central Valley accounts for one-sixth of the nation’s irrigated farmland. Four trillion gallons of water a year disappear from underground aquifers and its river basins.

Desert irrigation in the Central Valley

Practically no snow has fallen in the Sierra Nevada mountains for several years, so snow melt has not replenished the Central Valley’s water supply. Groundwater levels currently sit 100 feet below average. There is no water to flow through irrigation canals. In some parts of the Central Valley, the desiccated land subsides by more than two inches every month due to a lack of water. Crops deplete not just groundwater, but deep water wells, and a third of these crops never even leave the fields because they aren’t pretty enough for grocers to stock. Meanwhile people in San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles, who depend on that same source for water to drink and to bathe in, ration it and pay steep penalties for use deemed “excessive.”

Waste from food animal production also impacts our environment. We have all probably heard that the Buffalo River watershed is threatened by a farm that needs to dispose of 7 million gallons of hog manure a year. That project involves a single large farm. Because of the pollution from this one pig farm, the Buffalo River has experienced unusual algae blooms this year. Now imagine that sort of effect on every stream in America from hundreds of thousands of animal farms.

The Environmental Impact of Food Waste

Growing and transporting all that wasted food spews out a staggering amount of carbon emissions. Wasted food is the single-largest contributor to U.S. landfills, and correspondingly to the methane emissions that result from them.

Nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers from these wasted crops have polluted the streams of the Missouri-Mississippi River systems. The second largest marine “dead zone” in the world is at the mouth of the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizers in the runoff from farms become more and more concentrated as they move downstream and collect still more fertilizers from more farms. By the time the Mississippi reaches the Gulf coast, this soupy brew causes recurrent algae blooms. Decomposing algae consume the oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Fishing boats and shrimpers have to travel farther from shore to harvest anything. The ecosystem of the polluted shores no longer sustains the wildlife it once did. The Gulf dead zone has now grown to the size of the combined states of Connecticut and Rhode Island. It is easily visible in satellite images because the toxic, hypoxic waters appear murky and brown.

Food Waste Can Beget or Resolve Food Waste

Vegetable crops are not the only wasted food. Meat raised for human consumption is wasted at an alarming rate. Twenty percent, or about twelve billion chickens, pigs, and cattle, are raised, fed, watered, and slaughtered for food but never eaten. Raising an animal from birth to table is incredibly expensive in terms of the food it eats, the water it drinks, the labor to care for it, the space it requires, the time it takes to grow, and the drugs used to keep it healthy.

We grow enormous amounts of grain to feed the animals we eat. Imagine the savings in resources, water, and pollutants if the animals we eat were fed on the food we waste. Two food consumers are doing just that: Rutgers University in New Jersey donates dining hall food scraps to a local cattle and hog farm, and MGM Resorts in Las Vegas donates food scraps from its casinos and restaurants to a local hog farm. Imagine if more businesses and farms cooperated like this.

The Cost of Food Waste

Worldwide, nearly a trillion dollars worth of food is wasted every year. In 2015 the UN’s task force on global food insecurity reported that nearly 800 million people – one-eighth of the planet’s population – are chronically undernourished. The food that currently feeds landfills could feed the 800 million hungry people in the world twice over. And we are throwing away forty percent of our perfectly edible meat, vegetables, and fruits. Poverty and logistics create food insecurity, not scarcity.

When we think of starving families, we think of places like war-torn countries and times of famine. We think of Syria, where humanitarian aid is prevented from reaching bombed-out cities. We think of Yemen, where families have to choose which children to feed and which to allow to die. We think of that Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a starving Sudanese toddler, crouched in hunger and despair as a vulture stalks her.

We don’t think of developed nations. We do not think of the fertile American South and we certainly don’t think of our own neighborhoods.

But one in every eight American families struggles to put enough food on the table. During the school year, the only meals the children in some of these families get are the ones served at school. As much as a fifth of Mississippi’s population has trouble finding affordable, nutritious food. Arkansas’s numbers are slightly better, but before we say “Thank God for Mississippi,” we should recognize that one in four Arkansas children cannot grow and develop normally because they don’t get enough to eat. Single parent families, the working poor, and senior citizens tend to not have enough food, while Pulaski County discards more than 100,000 pounds of food daily.

Reclaiming Ugly Food for the Hungry

We must put this wasted but perfectly edible food into the mouths and bellies of the people who need it. The United Nations has recognized that the right to food and water is a basic human right, and its member nations are slowly taking action.

In November Slovenia made the right to clean drinking water a constitutional right and Scotland’s Independent Working Group on Food Poverty recommended that its government make the right to food a matter of law. Such legislation will not end food insecurity or water scarcity. It would, however, mandate that the governments of these countries ensure that everyone has access to adequate and affordable food and water. Earlier this year, France passed a law banning supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, requiring them to donate that food to charities and food banks. Italy did the same. It also created tax incentives for businesses based on the amount of food donated and passed legislation to permit food slightly past its sell-by date to be donated without risk to the donor.

Non-government organizations also try to make a difference. In its first year of existence, a single company in the San Francisco Bay area rescued 350 tons of produce that had been rejected for sale in grocery stores solely for cosmetic reasons. The company donated the produce to homeless shelters and food banks and sold what it could to individual consumers.

To help address the hunger issue locally, the Junior League of Little Rock started a nonprofit organization called Potluck. Potluck collects food waste from hundreds of area food donors such as hospitals, food distributors, event centers, grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels. It redistributes its collections to food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. It serves several Arkansas communities, and with more help could serve more.

History’s Lessons

None of us has to waste as much food as we do. When my grandmother died more than 15 years ago, I rescued several tattered, fragile books from the shelf in her kitchen. Two of these hand-written books of recipes were over 100 years old and had belonged to her own mother and grandmother. These women who lived in Scott, Arkansas more than a century ago did not waste anything that could be eaten. They had recipes that specifically called for sour milk, bruised plums, and leftovers.

If we are foolish enough to believe that our society’s current careless attitude toward our excess food production cannot be a serious problem, let us remember that a drought between 1931-1941 desiccated the mid-section of the U.S. In the 1930s more than three and a half million people abandoned farms in the Plains states. Following Route 66, many of them ended up in California’s Central Valley. Their descendants still produce half of our domestically-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

The ghosts of Joad family, the Okie protagonists of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, are watching us. After five years of desperate drought in Oklahoma, they moved to California’s Central Valley. California’s Central Valley, which has been in a state of desperate drought for five years.

Agri-business, commercial consumers, governments, and ordinary people must work together to increase the efficiency of our food supply system. Ugly food is wasted, but the impact of current levels of food waste is even uglier.

Drug Testing: the Wrong Results

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

Slowly She Dissolves, by Melinda Green Harvey

When I was a law student, I took a class on environmental law. One of the subjects I was interested in was contamination by secondary exposure. Direct exposure is obvious and often quantifiable. Indirect or secondary exposure – in the form of things like acid rain or second-hand smoke – was more complex and harder to quantify and prove. I was also fascinated by the possibility of false positive and false negative results from the testing methods available at the time. These tests were being used to fight coal-fired power plants and to hold cigarette manufacturers liable for the lung cancer of non-smokers. They were also being used to ferret out pot smokers and recreational users of certain prescription medications.

It was 1988. The Reagans were in the White House. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign was wildly popular among people who had no clue about how teenagers test boundaries. That year saw a wave of employers demanding that their employees take drug tests either before beginning employment, after an accident, or randomly. Aside from the 4th Amendment issues (which only applied to the government employers), dissenters raised objections to false positive test results that could damage not only someone’s career but their reputations and future employability. Being a child of the 70’s and 80’s, I was at least passingly familiar with the concept of the “contact high.” Could a person’s off-duty social associations cause him to lose his job? I decided to investigate the matter.

I researched the science, not just the law. I learned that something as ordinary as a poppy seed bagel or over-the-counter antihistamines could skew test results. There was no way to differentiate between someone who had ingested the substance illicitly or simply gone to a concert and been assigned a seat near people who were smoking weed. The science could test for the presence of the chemicals, but could not say how they had gotten into the person’s body or whether the person was feeling the effects of the substance at the time of testing.

Five years later I had a very active family law practice. I handled quite a few employment law cases, too. Drug testing came up over and over again. Knowing what I did, I discouraged clients from attacking each other for drug use unless it was seriously interfering with parenting responsibilities – and not just because of the false positives and false negatives. Usually if one parent partakes, the other parent will have been exposed, if they didn’t themselves indulge. The employment cases were the worst, though.

All it took was an accident that was someone else’s fault to trigger a drug test under most employers’ policies. I remember a truck driver who hired me who said yes, for the first time in 20 years he had smoked a joint at his college reunion a few days before the accident. He wasn’t high when it happened, but lost a $70,000/year job when a woman driving another vehicle ran a stop sign. He swerved to miss her and ended up in a ditch. He was fired because of the drug test, not because of the accident.

I remember the 60+ year old woman who was told she had failed a pre-employment drug test. This woman had been out of work for more than a year because the plant where she had worked closed. She had had to give up her home of 40 years and move in with her daughter. She was looking forward to independence again. Our investigation revealed that the test samples had probably been switched accidently, either at the lab or by whoever had collected the samples. A long-haired hippie-type person had the job she had applied for, and in a fit of profiling she just knew he was actually the one with the drugs in his system. Her preacher, though, in whom she had confided the devastating test results, had condemned her and was counseling her to get help for her non-existent addiction. She was humiliated and literally sick over it.

By 2000, there were lots of products on the market specifically marketed to people who needed to beat a drug test. Substance abuse was an issue in at least half of the custody cases I tried, and maybe more. Every single client – and every single opposing party – knew about these products. They weren’t 100% reliable, but I didn’t have any clients who submitted to a drug test without using the products if there was time for them to do so. Those who I knew used drugs were made aware that in-court testing was a possibility. While I couldn’t tell them to destroy the evidence, I could tell them to be ready to be tested. With a few exceptions, they were all smart enough to take steps.

drug testing - hair follicle collectionThen there was the grandmother who was suing for custody of her badly neglected grandchildren. She didn’t use drugs. She was asking for custody because her daughter and son in law did, and because of their drug use they didn’t take care of their children adequately. She had asked for drug testing knowing that she would pass easily and that the parents would fail any drug test they were ordered to take. The judge ordered everyone to be tested. The grandmother had gone to a James Taylor concert at Alltell Arena and breathed in that second-hand marijuana smoke. Her grandchildren ended up in foster care.

Then came hair follicle testing. Follicle testing was more foolproof and harder to beat, the testing centers and manufacturers claimed. It wasn’t long before the shampoos and rinses were marketed in the same places as those flushing solutions. “You cannot beat a hair test,” one site still boasts. It’s wrong. Even if the test shows positive, it doesn’t explain how the substance got there.

It made me think of the rumor I had heard back in the 1980’s when cocaine use was rampant in the United States. It was said that traces of cocaine could be found on nearly every American $100 in circulation. Partiers would roll the bill into a straw and snort the powder through it. This level of contamination is still the case, and the bills don’t even have to be used directly with the cocaine. They can get contaminated inside currency-counting machines at the bank. Imagine handling one of those bank-contaminated bills that you just withdrew to pay your lawyer, them smoothing a stray strand of hair. Then imagine that you are sent directly for a drug test, and despite the fact that you have never in your life even seen cocaine, much less used it, your drug test comes back positive for the drug. It doesn’t have to be in your system to count. It just has to be in your hair. And once again, you are placed in the position of having to explain how it got there, and proving the negative of the drug use that you are now presumed to engage in.

With the announcement from the American Chemical Society last week that steps taken to remove secondary contamination from hair being drug tested actually washes cocaine into the hair shaft, the most reliable of these unreliable tests just became even less reliable.

Science gives us a lot, but it is not a panacea and never will be. It answers some questions, but answering those tends to lead to more that need to be asked. Whether in the courtroom or just in everyday life, we need to remember to ask those questions that logically come next. Science can then begin investigating them and working to find the answers.

Drug testing is too fallible to be reliable. A positive drug test tells us virtually nothing. It doesn’t prove frequent use or addiction. It doesn’t prove use at all – and it never has.

Litterbugs Litter Butts

So today was the day for the Adopt-a-Highway litter pick-up.

Sign for the Adopt-A-Highway mile of the Freethinkers of Central Arkansas

The sign says “Freethinkers of Central Arkansas,” but that group was one of several that merged with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers a couple of years ago. Somebody in charge of the organization really ought to do something about getting the name on the sign changed. Somebody? Somebody? Oh. Wait. That would probably end up being me.  Therefore, it’s fine the way it is – for a little longer, anyway.

We do our highway clean-ups on Sunday mornings, because, well, it’s not like we go to church. It’s the one time in the week when people in our group are apt to be available. We met at 9:00 a.m. today, before things got too blazing hot. The mile we adopted is in downtown Little Rock, on State Highway 10 near the state capitol. It’s part of LaHarpe Boulevard where the highway crosses a railroad and becomes Third Street, then crosses the railroad again a couple of miles before it officially becomes Cantrell Road. Little Rock’s primary roads don’t tend to keep a single name for long distances. Don’t ask me why.

trash, cigarette butts, litter, gross

This patch of the side of the road is about two feet square.

Litter along this street doesn’t tend to get too out of hand. I don’t know if that’s because the property owners along this stretch tend to be conscientious about keeping their sidewalks clean. (I’m especially giving you nods of approval, Dillard’s Corporate Headquarters and Episcopal Collegiate School.)

In the years that I’ve participated in the highway cleanup, I’ve noticed one thing to be consistently true:

Cigarette smokers are some trashy, nasty, litter-bugging sumbitches.

And I don’t mean just a little trashy, either. If you count the actual number of things picked up today, far and away the most numerous were cigarette butts. If I’ve counted correctly, there are about thirty pieces of litter in the photo to the right. Twenty-six of those are cigarette butts. I circled the litter butts in red so you could see them better. The non-butt pieces of litter are circled in blue.

Do cigarette smokers realize that their butts are not biodegradable? Do they understand that when they throw their butts out of the car window they are really and truly littering? Do they know that the rest of the world really doesn’t want to look at their trash?

I guess not. I may be a little sensitive to this, seeing as how just this morning I spent an hour and half with about 15 other folks on the side of the road picking up mostly cigarette butts discarded by thoughtless smokers. Cigarette smokers litter butts like breadcrumbs through the forest paths of their lives. Why?

cigarette butts

This is my HOUSE, dammit!

trash, matches, liltter

We do have trash cans.

I don’t smoke. I am allergic to cigarette smoke. My throat closes up when I spend to much time around it. I can’t breathe. So I am grateful for the modern courtesy of people going outside to smoke when they are in my company. Smoking indoors caused me lots of unpleasant breathing issues before it became customary for smokers to go outside. I will provide ashtrays for my guests who want to smoke.

Smokers who come over to my house and toss their nasty butts in my yard are pretty friggin’ rude, in my book. Do they think no one picks up after them? Do they think I want their ugly butts to just sit there, waiting for some archaeologist to come along in a couple hundred years to dig them up and think that I lived on top of some trash heap? Damn litterbugs.

After I got home from the highway cleanup today, I went out through my son’s basement bedroom to the patio. The photo to the left shows what was on the steps outside his door. I circled the cigarette butts – five of them, and those are the ones I didn’t have to look for. They were just thrown, or carefully placed, right there on the steps leading down to the yard. I didn’t circle the matches in the photo on the left, but I was pretty appalled at the collection I found, and the photo on the right shows more matches that were apparently used to light those cigarettes. The matches were tossed onto the stoop. They are wooden, so they are biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean I really want them littering my damn deck. and we’ve got a serious drought going on. I don’t want my house to burn down, either.

I have a couple of family members who occasionally smoke at my house. I suspect that one of them left those butts outside the basement door. Another of them is my favorite youngest male first cousin, who I’ll call Paul, because that’s his name. Paul doesn’t litter cigarette butts at my house anymore. There’s a reason for that.

Paul came over one evening, and we spent a pleasant few hours chatting. Paul has spent many hours at my house, and he knows I can’t handle cigarettes inside. Off and on throughout his visit that evening, Paul would go out onto the deck to smoke. He took a can with him. I don’t remember if it was a can of beer or of soda, or if it was empty or full. He did not ask for an ashtray, though, so I assumed he was using his can as his ashtray.

hanging plant

The new hanging plant on the deck

“This pot is kind of cool,” Paul said. “But why does it have a hole in its side?” He was standing on the deck looking at the hanging plant that graced the door to my living room.

“A what?”

I looked at the pot. Sure enough, there was a hole in the side of the pot. I had just bought the flowers in that pot a couple of weeks before, filled the empty pot with a coconut coir potting mixture, and planted them. For a moment I was confused. I didn’t remember it being the type of pot with holes for strawberries or herbs to grow out of its sides. I reached for the pot and turned it to see if there were more holes on the sides, which I had just missed because of a psychotic break or something.

“That’s weird. It’s smoking,” said Paul.

“Shit!” I dashed for the water hose a few feet away.

After playing Fire Marshall, I looked at Paul, who looked very sheepish.

“Um,” he said.

“I guess you weren’t using that as an ashtray,” I said, nodding toward the can.

“Yeah. No. No, I wasn’t.”

“That pot didn’t originally have a hole in its side,” I said, because at that moment it dawned on me that the hole had just materialized.  Or dematerialized. The plastic had melted, mysteriously.

“No, I guess it didn’t.”

“Paul, we’ve discussed smoking pot,” I said gently. Because we have, lots of times.

Pots really shouldn’t smoke.


(Paul, you know I love you. Don’t hate me for telling this story.)



Cree Prophecy

I Just Solved All Our Problems

In response to the blog post of a friend who is understandably bemoaning the state of the nation, I got a wee bit windy.

I know, I know – it’s hard for anyone to believe that I – moi – would spew opinions unrestrained against the drums of ears attached to mouths that were asking rhetoricals, not practicals. Nevertheless, I have the answer, and if the president would only sit down and pay attention to me, all the country’s problems – yea, even all the world’s! – would be solved.

The economy is not going to be fixed overnight, and right now Obama is listening to the experts who advise throwing more money at the economy in all the wrong places – at least IMHO. But, in response to those who are nodding sagely, saying “We told you that Obama would bring socialism and liberalism to the country, but did you listen?  Nooooo,” I say that (ahem) this started on the Republican watch. Obama inherited this disaster; he did not create it. And since no one has ever dealt with such a staggering world-wide economic crisis before, that means he is inventing this wheel as he goes along.  Will he get it all right?  Of course not.  But he won’t be likely to get it all wrong, either.

From what I hear and read, the economy isn’t going to start upward on any consistent basis until at least next year, and maybe not until 2011. Whenever in history the economy has tanked as suddenly and as severely as it did last summer and fall, the recovery has always been slow. That’s why they call them “depressions.”

Consumer confidence is badly shaken, and as more and more jobs are lost and more and more foreclosure notices are mailed, it’s not as if Dick and Jane are suddenly going to decide to splurge on that vacation home, lavish gifts for their status-conscious kids, or a pricey new automobile. Their businesses aren’t going to be hell-bent to hire new employees, either, because if sales are down, and no one is getting the services they offer, the employers simply can’t justify it.

The economy is, believe it or not, depressed.  And Economic Abilify has not yet been invented.

My opinion (and one or two of you might possibly be aware that I have one or two opinions, even though I rarely mention them in polite company) is that Obama would be better off to give stimulus money to the people and entities that are best in a position to turn this thing around, i.e., all of us, but in different ways.

Money should go to the homeowners trying to stave off foreclosure as a condition of and part of the debt renegotiation with the lenders – that way the lenders get paid directly by the government on behalf of the homeowners, the homeowners and their children aren’t sleeping on the streets, and the banks don’t own homes they can’t sell.

If a home is undervalued for the debt the homeowner has against it, the government should pay the difference as soon as new terms for the remainder are worked out between the borrower and the lender. If the borrower can’t afford to continue making the original payments – not the juiced-up interest payments – then there can be a second tier of incentives for the lenders to extend the debts to a 40 year amortization as opposed to the customary 30 year schedule.

And NO MORE INTEREST-ONLY long term debt!  Whose idiotic notion was that, anyway?  “Here, Joe Bob and Sally Sue, take this money that you never have to pay back. Just pay us interest and we’ll all be happy.”  The hell, they say! Morons.

Next, apply stimulus funds to the remaking of the American infrastructure, especially rural and smaller urban areas without reasonable public transit. Make light rail, high speed rail, and buses reach more places and serve more people on better schedules. One of the worst things we ever did was allow our railroads to be dismantled in favor of three cars in every driveway and five lanes on every freeway. Refurbishing and improving our infrastructure will employ hundreds of thousands of people in various positions throughout the country. From engineers to draftsmen to laborers to porters, we can get this country moving at a much more economical rate, and faster, if we’ll commit the funds to do it. And those jobs won’t go away when the projects are complete – they will need to be maintained, too.

Simultaneously, pour money into scientific research and development of alternative energy as well as into to cleaning up and maintain the environment. I’m not talking about just reducing greenhouse gases, although that is certainly a big concern, but (for example) about making reasonable accommodations for heavy metals that are the by-product of mining and drilling. A rocket laden with nuclear waste, arsenic, mercury and lead headed for the dark side of the moon might not be a bad use of NASA’s funding.

Put people to work cleaning up the environmental damage we’ve done to the planet, and making sure we’ve still got a planet to leave to our great-grandchildren. Clean water, clean air, and fewer chemicals artificially enhancing the soil and crops will go a long way toward making us all healthier – not to mention the possibility that our grandchildren might be able to play with frogs in their back yards some day.

And while we’re at it, quit giving chickens and cows all those damn hormones!  I have yet to meet a teenage girl whose double-D’s don’t put my paltry gifts to shame.  Why are their adolescent mammaries the size of a Holstein’s udders? Hormones!

Reduce the employer’s share of employment taxes. With the matching amounts that employers pay for health insurance, medicaid, unemployment, and social security, the cost of hiring an employee is a lot more than just what the employee sees in his check. This would be a real, dollar amount of savings for employers and would probably allow businesses to hire more workers across the board and at all levels.

Nationalized health care? Bring it on. Insurance companies will always provide coverage to people who choose to pay more for less care.  Those of us who have survived cancer (twice, thankyouverymuch) or who are on certain costly medications can’t get health insurance without staggering pre-existing conditions clauses that make our health insurance worthless and excruciatingly expensive – if we can get it at all.

When health insurance benefits dictate whether a parent can open a business of his or her own or must stay with an employer who provides health coverage the family can’t get elsewhere, entrepreneurialism is stifled. This country is dependent on small business and entrepreneurs. We absolutely must break down the barriers that prevent people from making an attempt to achieve their dreams. I don’t know about you, but I work a lot harder for myself than I do for someone else. I don’t think failed businesses should be propped up by the government (Detroit, are you listening?), but when something like paying for childbirth determines whether a family can start a small business, there’s something desperately wrong.

Where, O Where will the money come from to do all this?

(clearing my throat)

The same place the last two trillion dollars came from.  And the next trillion will actually make a difference. It will put people to work, shore up the foundation of the country, and stabilize the economy. It will also have the added benefit of making the world a better place.  And if any of you out there are thinking there won’t be more stimulus money forthcoming, you just hide and watch. It’ll come, I promise, whether the president takes my incontrovertible advice or not.

Now that I have solved the problems of the environment, the economy, health care, and reliance on fossil fuels, are there any other problems you’d like me to take a look at?  My rates are reasonable, and I’m in a spewing mood.

Tree Splooge

Spring is a miserable time of year.

First, there’s the weather. The damnable, changeable, hot-then-cold-again weather. The tornado, thunderstorm, wildly fluctuating barometric pressure, what the hell do I wear today, blustery, windy, knock me on my ass, fifty degree temperature spread in a day weather.

Then there’s the plants. You think it’s warm. There has been a recent series of beautiful warm spring days so you go to the local nursery and buy plants. You know, those tender annuals or baby herbs or vegetables just sprouted that make your mouth water with the promise of zucchini to come and tomatoes heavy on the vine. You put them in your car. You ferry them home. You place them where you want them and tamp the cool soil around their delicate stems, and after spending a day soaking up natural Vitamin D you go to bed, tired but fulfilled from a day playing the farmer, only to wake up shivering because you turned off the heat and the indoor temperature now matches the outdoor temperature of about 27 degrees and all the work you did yesterday is for naught. You vow next year to give it a week even after the frost-free date before you buy so much as a single packet of parsley seeds, knowing full well that spring’s siren song of false seduction will lure you to the nursery for that fateful waste of valuable money on plants doomed to die by the next sunrise.

The very worst part of spring, though, has to be the trees. Tall, bare-limbed, they stretch themselves and shake off the winter by emitting tentative tendrils of leaves, and before even the first leaf is full formed, the oaks go into full rut.

Oaks are horny bastards.

Because of the oaks, heinous fuckery most foul is visited upon me. Each fall the acorns hit my deck sounding like scatter shot, someone’s Daisy BB gun with an automatic clip, a terrorist squirrel at the helm of a acorn-grenade launching Gatling gun, firing hell bent for leather at my precious darling deck which never hurt anyone. Acorns are the demon-spawn of oaks. To create those diabolical children, the oaks engage in a springtime orgy that makes Bacchus himself blush at the pure wanton sex those oaks put out there for all the world to see.

The mighty oaks are masculinity personified. Baring their knotted chests, in Spring they take a deep breath and grimace, and from every pore pop squiggly spermatozoa, wiggling and waggling at other oaks, daring the other oaks to take a breath themselves and shoot back tentacles of spermatozoa in a war of silly string battle-inspired posturing and thrusting. It is indeed heinous fuckery most foul, as the foul squigglies waft their pollen and fill my unsuspecting gutters with their decaying carcasses.

Victims of these oaken battles of male dominance are cars, covered in a greenish yellow dust that hides the metallic grays and greens and reds. Victims also are the furniture, helplessly stationary in their designated positions, the flat planes of which act as a breeding ground not for acorns but for that same greenish yellow film that coats unprotected patio furniture and wafts into the cracks of car windows someone forgot to roll up.

Victim also are my sinuses, and Jack’s, and the sinuses of my receptionist (who I think has had a sinus condition since November). The virile oaks seek to splash their splooge on every available surface, in hopes that all the world will turn into acorns proving their masculine Darwinian fitness. In Spring, we walk through breezes of tree splooge morning, noon and night. Those damnable trees believe, like so many Arab IMers, that the world is a woman, open and panting for their splooge to fall fertile on something and make an acorn of it.

There is a scene in Christopher Moore’s classic Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings in which a pair of female oceanographers are studying sperm whales, and upon seeing a mating pair are delighted at their rare good fortune – until, that is, the female whale moves one way and the male moves the other just at the moment of his ecstasy. The two women are drowned in a sea of sperm whale splooge and instantly turn lesbian, seeking never again to encounter such a substance again.

That is also the novel in which I first encountered the term “heinous fuckery most foul,” uttered by a caucasian Rastafarian surfer called Kona.

My nose is stuffed so much I can’t sniffle. My cough barks deep within my chest. Today, I identify totally with those two female oceanographers. If I never experience tree splooge again, it will be too soon.

The oaks are virile indeed.

The fuckers.

Dolphin Saves the Whales

Despite Geraldine’s Ferraro’s possible claims to the contrary, there is no racism among cetaceans.

There’s a bottlenose dolphin called Moko who frequently splashes and plays with swimmers at Mahia Beach on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island, in a region known as Hawke’s Bay.

Hawke’s Bay is sort of the Napa Valley of New Zealand. The region is famous for its wines and fine accommodations. The peninsula is a scenic reserve, complete with hiking trails and camping.

Moko the dolphin is a real-life “Flipper.” She plays with swimmers, pushes kayaks through the water, and comes close to boats so the people in them can pet her. Although dolphins don’t normally seem to be afraid of humans, interactions between humans and dolphins in the wild is fairly rare. Conservation Department workers speculate that Moko is isolated from her pod and gets her social contact through her interactions with the bathers and boaters off Mahia Beach.

Moko the dolphin does more than just play with the bipeds in Hawke’s Bay, though. She’s a true hero, and Monday she proved it.

On Monday, a 12-foot mother pygmy sperm whale and her 4-foot calf became stranded in a shallow area frequented by swimmers at Mahia Beach. Conservation Department workers did their best, but could not get the whales pointed in the right direction. They got a sling under the mother and the baby, pulled them off the sand bar, and pointed them to deeper water. The whales were frightened, though, and kept getting beached. They were apparently afraid of the shallow waters near the beach and could not find their way amid the many sand bars back to open water.

The animals kept getting beached on the shallow sand bars that surround the swimming area. The Conservation Department workers freed them four times, but each time the whales to become grounded again, unable to swim to deep water and safety.

Malcolm Smith, who had been in the chilly water trying to free the whales for well over an hour, described the rescue by Moko as “amazing.” “I was starting to get cold and wet and they were becoming tired. I was at the stage where I was thinking it was about time to give up – I’d done as much as I could.”

Giving up mean euthanasia. If stranded whales cannot be freed and sent back into open water, the Conservation Department spares them the long, agonizing death that results from the whales being impossibly stuck on a beach or on a sand bar.

Suddenly, though, apparently in answer to the whales’ distress calls, Moko the friendly dolphin showed up. Juanita Symes, a Conservation Department worker and rescuer, told The Associated Press that “Moko just came flying through the water and pushed in between us and the whales.”

The dolphin and the whales communicated. The rescue workers saw Moko’s actions and heard her whistles, and heard the audible response of the pygmy sperm whales. Moko then led them about 200 yards along the beach, through a narrow channel, and out to the open sea.

London’s Daily Mail quoted Smith as saying, “Moko is a real heroine because there is absolutely no doubt she learned of the whales’ plight through some kind of telepathy and then got them out of trouble.” Moko led the whales about 200 yards parallel to the beach, then turned into a narrow channel the whales had not been able to find on their own. The whales followed Moko to open sea and have not been seen since in the Mahia Beach area.

The mother and calf were extremely lucky. Most of the whale strandings at Mahia Beach end up with the whales having to be euthanized. Perhaps when other whales become disoriented and stranded in the shallow waters, Moko will again come to the rescue.


The Invasion of America

America – both the Americas – were not so much settled by Europeans as they were invaded.

Sixteenth and seventeenth century European attitudes toward the “virgin” land of the New World implied that they believed that the continent was theirs for the taking, as if it had been waiting millennia for some white people to come along and civilize it.  This attitude persisted until very recently, and may not have been annihilated even yet.

The idea behind the Crusades in the eleventh century still held for the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europeans.  Any war fought for the purpose of expanding the Church was considered justifiable (jihad, anyone?), and with European attentions turned to the American continents came the profound realization that there were more savages who needed to be exposed to Christianity.

Christians tended to view the indigenous Americans as non-religious because they did not recognize elements of their own religion in the environmental religions of the natives. American Indian religious myths, legends and rituals emphasized the peoples’ relationship to the environment.

For awhile, the natives and the European colonists found a use for one another.  The basis for the relationship was trade, and trade was something neither side wanted to lose.   Indians were enthralled by the wonders of steel blades, guns, and European textiles. Both sides wanted each other’s support against hostile neighbors. In the beginning the Europeans required the assistance of the natives just to survive in what they perceived as a wilderness.  They also wanted pelts, wampum (which was accepted as currency in the colonies), handcrafts, and the personal service of the natives.  Most of all, though, the white people wanted land.

As Indians realized what wonderful objects they could obtain through trade with the Europeans, intertribal trade decreased.  Since the white people demanded furs in trade, native energies were devoted to acquiring more pelts than the next tribe down the trail. Overkill disrupted the balance of nature.  The Indians’ diligence in getting furs for the Europeans resulted in self-destruction as they wiped out the wildlife upon which their lives depended.

White populations grew, and so did the demand for land. The colonists and their sponsoring governments believed that American soil was lying unused.  They believed that since the same ground could support a denser population of white people that somehow the white people had a more valid claim to the land. They disregarded the fact that disease brought to America by Europeans had effectively depopulated the Americas; in fact, had they acknowledged such a thing it might be seen as God’s judgment upon the heathen savages, and further proof that the land should be in the possession of those who would put it to obvious use rather than those who would allow it to remain largely untouched.

At the root of all native-colonist relations was the hunger for land.  Colonists believes that the natives did not utilize land to its utmost because there were, as the Europeans saw it, vast tracts of land left wild, uncontrolled by agriculture or towns.  The European colonists did not consider that the indigenous people obtained a great deal of their food from hunting and gathering. To assure the presence of game , the game’s habitat must be preserved.  Only with the practice of conservation would the game continue to multiply.

Something the colonists did not understand then, and which has largely been ignored in history, is that the native Americans farmed to feed their people.  Although many foods were gathered as they grew wild, and animal husbandry was introduced by Europeans, agriculture was widespread in both of the Americas. The natives grew surplus crops and stored them for the winter.

Had the Plymouth colonists not stumbled upon stores of these surpluses, and then been given more, they would probably not have survived their first winter.  Jamestown colonists were also kept from starving by gifts and purchases of surplus crops already grown and stored by the natives.

Arrangements between Europeans and Indians to share the land were made with the ultimate intention of the part of the white people to dispossess the natives.  When land was conveyed to an European, whether by a deed or by some other kind of agreement, the European assumed that the tribe gave up rule over the area in question. Imagine a Dutch family buying a home in New York City today and claiming that the law of the Netherlands, and not of the United States, prevailed! This is exactly what the Europeans did, though. Furthermore, when Europeans claimed land in the Americas, they would claim that the natives living in that territory as their subjects.

Wars fought between white and native peoples were generally fought over land rights.  Whether the disputed land was claimed by both natives and Europeans, or by competing European countries, the Native Americans ended up fighting, either to support their own claims or to support the claims of the European community with which they did the most business.

Effectively Indian populations became the vassals of the colonial governments and then later of the American government.  They never saw themselves in this light, however. Sovereignty became the single major issue between white and native populations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and was an especially bloody concerning the Iroquois, whose lands were claimed by the new governments of  State of New York and the United States.

The colonists abused inter-tribal feuds for their own purposes, too.  They spread rumors about enemy tribes among friendly ones in order to cause suspicion and war.  After the tribes battled, the Europeans moved in to enjoy the spoils.

The colonists also used the spread of Christianity to pit the natives against each other. As different European nations established colonies, the religious men of those colonies taught the nearby natives their own brand of Christianity, ultimately pitting Catholic against Protestant.  Once again, when the bloody battle was over, the white man moved in to enjoy the spoils.

The French and Indian War is an obvious and famous example of how useful the native was for European warfare. French and English traders bought the loyalties of different groups of natives then threw them into battle against each other.  It was a war for European dominance that the Europeans barely had to fight.  They could be relatively detached and observe while the natives unwittingly substantiated European claims to what was actually native land.

Europeans saw the natives as lawless.  They did not recognize the form of government under which the indigenous peoples lived.  They saw the chiefs and sachems as tyrants, or they discerned only anarchy from council gatherings.  For example, the Iroquois did not recognize a central authority as a governing device.  Consensus, in a very democratic manner, created the authority by which the tribes operated. On the other hand, Europeans saw sovereignty as a means to an end.  The goal was control.

At first, the colonists paid little attention to native protocol in intergovernmental relations.  As they became more accustomed to Indian ritual, they adapted themselves to the native style of diplomacy.  Treaties in the northwest portions of New England eventually followed the government model of the Iroquois Five Nations, and eventually the colonists, in their break from monarchy, adopted a mix of European and native democratic protocols.

Because the native governments did not conform to what the Europeans historically understood to be government, the colonists felt justified in forcing their values and institutions on the natives.  They considered the Indians uncivilized and therefore outside the sanction of law and morality, so they were not ridden with guilt as they extorted the Indians’ lands from them and subjected them to an alien form of government.

The Europeans went to great extremes to bring the natives under colonial jurisdiction.  Often natives would sign away their lands without understanding the terms of the treaties.  Colonists would deliberately mislead the natives as to the content of the agreements, making certain that the tribal leaders or individuals they treated with did not comprehend the meaning of the papers they signed.  This practice was continued by the new government of the United States.

Some of the more nefarious practices included not informing the natives of the terms of the treaty, then penalizing them for violation of those terms or of terms which the white men retrospectively wanted the treaty to include. The Europeans would extort great sums of currency from the Indians knowing the natives could not pay, then loan them money with the land as collateral.  When the tribe failed to come through with payment, the colonists would confiscate the land and declare the tribes on it to be under colonial jurisdiction.

It is hardly remarkable that upon entering a reservation today, the sovereign Native American nation posts a sign explaining that those who enter are subject to tribal law rather than to American law.

White men later extorted money from natives in other ways.  When Charles A. Eastman, a mixed-race Indian activist and lobbyist around the turn of the 20th century, learned that the United States government had shorted the Sioux nation by about $10,000.00 on a treaty payment for their land, the government called in an inspector.  The inspector agreed with Eastman’s assessment.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs elected to discredit the inspector’s report, however, and sent another inspector.  This inspector found no wrongdoing, and the tribe was denied its money.  In yet another case, the Sioux were to have received payments over a period of fifty years for their tribal lands.  Only nine payments were ever made.

Propaganda to the contrary, tribal customs in war were not nearly as brutal as those of the Europeans or their American children.  Indian war philosophy was not constructed along plans of conquest and subjugation.  At the next peaceful meeting of the native tribes, gifts would be exchanged and the other side would be honored.  Only after repeated exposure to European-style warfare did the natives engage in mass slaughter. European warfare, on the other hand, was always about wiping out the enemy and taking all that he had, rendering any survivors unable to survive for long.

The indigenous warriors tended to kill only in battle and stopped fighting after relatively few deaths.  European soldiers had no qualms about massacre as long as they were using it against the natives. Prisoners of war were treated with much more compassion among the Indians than among the colonists, and the use of torture in all its depravity was more common among the English than the Indians until the English use of it became so widespread that the native captors employed it as well.

The tribes did not tend to destroy crops during warfare.  When they fought intertribally, they were steeling feuds with people, not wildlife.  However, white soldiers routinely burned crops and stole livestock.

Part of what Europeans mistook for native lawlessness was that Indians recognized fewer crimes and therefore punished fewer.  If a white person felt he had been victim of a crime committed by a native, he normally insisted that the native be brought to justice under the terms of the white government.  If a native were the victim of a crime committed by a white person, though, he could not hope for justice to be delivered to the offender under the white government.  If a white man asked that an Indian be punished under tribal laws, he was much more likely to get results.  The tribal leaders were all too aware that if the white person was not satisfied with his redress, he would be avenged on the native’s entire town or tribe.

After learning to live in the alien land of the Americas, Europeans began to distribute the tools that made survival a part time job.  Traders knew that the goods most in demand were practical ones.  The natives were just as happy to receive these tools as the whites were to receive pelts.  The difference lay in the fact that the Indians taught the white man their techniques of preparing hides, but the white man neglected to show the Indian how to make his own blades, guns, and other factory-made products.  The white man came out ahead once again, and the Indian destroyed his livelihood by over-hunting to be able to purchase the goods he could not make himself.

Inter-tribal trade was also transformed by the new goods available through the Europeans.  New commodities replaced the old.  The collapse of inter-tribal trading increased the hostilities because tribes began competing with one another for European products instead cooperating with each other for mutual survival.

Trade and loyalties to opposing groups of Europeans are only a part of what disrupted harmony between tribes.  Following the example specifically of the English, Indian sachems such as Uncas of the Mohegans became territory-hungry.  Contact with Europeans added new motives for war, introduced new weapons, and increased the number of wartime casualties drastically, even in wars the Europeans did not fight.

The Colonies often moved without the permission or even the knowledge of their sponsor governments. Each colony was autonomous and competed with its neighbor for claims to lands to the west, for the best locations for trading posts, and for tribute from local tribes to buy the peace.   There were vicious disputes between colonies for land, and the real losers were the real owners.

When the first serious English settlers arrived in North America in the 1620’s, many sachems welcomed them. Schoolchildren today are taught about the kindness of the Wampanoag chief, Massasaoit, to the Pilgrims when they first arrived and were starving. That initial kindness was not returned by the Englishmen, as can be seen in the sequence of events leading to the struggle for dominance in the Connecticut Valley.

This was the land of the Pequots, and both the colonies in Massachusestts and Connecticut coveted the land.  What resulted were the Pequot Wars, in which the Massachusetts colonists paid the Narragansetts to fight against their neighbors, the Pequots. The Narragansetts agreed, unaware that no warriors would be in the Pequot village when they arrived. The women, children and old men left in the Pequot village were massacred, mostly by the Englishmen accompanying the Narragansetts. The English depravities horrified the Narragansetts, and the surviving Pequots fled north and west to tribes friendly to them.  An entire tribe was now out of the way and English settlement could proceed.

The natives did fight back, but never very successfully for very long.  Natives were eventually herded onto reservations that became smaller and smaller over time. Resettlement was another option the U.S government pursued.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, thousands of natives were sent hundreds of miles away from their homelands to places like Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wisconsin. They became refugees at the mercy of the United States and host tribes.  Displacement of the native population contributed not only to physical hardship, because the people were forced to adapt to a smaller and sometimes alien territory, but to mental anguish as well.

During these times some natives responded with religion.  The Ghost Dancers among the Sioux and their neighbors, and the followers of the Code of Handsome Lake among the Seneca were prominent.  Especially during the nineteenth century, many native prophets and messiahs appeared.  Their teachings were peaceful and advocated a revival of native customs that had been ignored, forgotten, or neglected.  They were nevertheless perceived as threatening to the United States government. Ghost Dancers disappeared after a paranoid against mistook their celebrations for an uprising and called in soldiers, who massacred an encampment at Wounded Knee Creek.

The Code of Handsome Lake survived the test of time, though.  It still has followers on Iroquois reservations in the United States and Canada.  Handsome Lake, brother of the great Indian chief Tecumseh, taught the old Seneca ways.  He also advised his followers to take from white society things that could benefit Indian society.  He began a revival of Seneca religious traditions and rituals and at the same time he lobbied for education and agriculture.

Now the Native American lobby is gaining power.  Will the wrongs ever be redressed? It is highly unlikely. Money and education may help, but I doubt anyone one can imagine a North American continent in which the descendants of the Europeans are displaced and the descendants of the indigenous people control the government and the economy.  Well, perhaps we can imagine it, but we expect it will stay “safely” in our imaginations.

Selected Bibliography:

Charles A. Eastman, From the Deep Woods to Civilization (Little, Brown, 1916)
William M. Fowler, Jr., Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763 (Walker, 2005)
Patrick Huyghe, Columbus Was Last: From 200,000 B.C. to 1492, A Heretical History of Who Was First (MJF Books 1992)
Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America (Norton, 1976)
Robert Leckie, “A Few Acres of Snow:” The Saga of the French and Indian Wars (Castle Books, 2006)
Malcolm Margolin, The Ohlone Way, (Heyday, 1978)
Ted Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (Simon & Schuster 1993)
Nathaniel Philbrick, Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (Viking, 2006)
Arthur Quinn, A New World: An Epic of Colonial America from the Founding of Jamestown to the Fall of Quebec (Faber and Faber, 1994)
Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Harvard University Press, 2001)
Edward Spicer, ed., A Short History of the Indians of the United States (Van Nostrand, 1980)
Christopher Vecsey and Robert W. Venables, American Indian Environments (Syracuse University Press, 1980)
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (Random House/Vintage books, 1972)

Putting the War for Oil in Perspective

Graphic shamelessly ripped off from Robin Nixon’s blog, “It’s the Only One We Have.”

Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run

It’s almost August in Arkansas. That means it’s hot and the air is so heavy and stands so still I can lift a chunk of it in one hand and cut it with a knife.

How can someone who hates hot weather keep cool? She gets creative. In addition to tall glasses of sweet iced tea, sun dresses, and air conditioning cranked so low you could hang meat from my ceiling, I decided to pull out an old favorite: a book about dog sledding that I read a few years ago. There’s nothing like the thought of the Iditarod to put ice in one’s blood, now is there?

This isn’t a book review, although if you want to read more about the serum run the book I read is an excellent choice.

Pull up your chairs and settle in. Let me tell you a story about what really, truly happened one long wintry night in Alaska – where winter nights last for months.

Map of the Serum Run, January 1925, from The Cruelest Miles

Map of the January 1925 Serum Run along the Iditarod Trail from The Cruelest Miles

Prior to reading The Cruelest Miles, a fabulous book by Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury about the legendary inspiration for the annual Iditarod dog sled race, my own knowledge of the historic Serum Run was sparse. What little I knew came from modern-day  news reports of the Iditarod race, most of which I ignored, and my son’s old videotape of the animated feature, Balto, which I watched and listened to ad nauseum when he was a little guy. Although I suspected that the children’s movie had taken liberties with the facts, I was compelled to buy the book because of that movie as much as by the chance to read another vignette from American history. And yes, the movie did take generous liberties with the facts. Apparently, so did the creators of the statue of Balto that sits at the Children’s Zoo in Central Park in New York City.

The 674 mile trek was endured by brave Alaskan dog-sledders to stop the Nome diphtheria outbreak in the dead of winter, 1925. The Salisburys’ book is altogether readable and informative not only about the desperate race against the disease, but also about dog-sledding, Alaskan topography and climate, and the personalities and temperaments of the sled dogs themselves.  The characters who I most admired, though, were the score of determined men who accepted the challenge to risk their own lives to save a town full of dying children at the top of the world almost 100 years ago.

News reports of the day breathlessly followed the unfolding tragedy. As the men and dogs ran hundreds of miles in searing cold, suspense gripped the entire world. Reporters world-wide wrote about each leg of the desperate race to get the diphtheria anti-toxin to Nome in time to save the town. The book intersperses fascinating facts and asides which leave the reader hungry for more, but not impatient with the interruptions of the dramatic unfolding of events. The story has great flavor because of the fullness of its telling. As each team of dauntless dogs is hitched to their sled, the anti-toxin’s epic journey is punctuated with the unfolding crisis back in Nome.

When an Eskimo family brought one of their four children to him in the fall of 1925, Nome’s local doctor, Curtis Welch, did not immediately suspect diphtheria, nor did he realize that he was seeing an epidemic in its infancy. He believed at first that he was dealing with tonsillitis, which is an inflammation of the tonsils and throat caused by a virus or bacteria. None of the other children in the family were ill, and the parents reported no other instances of sore throats back in their village, which was close to Nome. Since diphtheria is highly contagious, it was unlikely that only one child would be affected, and in the decades he had been practicing medicine in Alaska’s northwest, no cases of diphtheria had been diagnosed – at all. But the Eskimo child died the next morning. Welch first concluded the cause of death to be from tonsillitis, which was rare. After the cases of diphtheria began making themselves known, though, Welch changed the child’s death certificate to reflect diphtheria as the cause of death.

That fall and winter, Welch noticed an unusually high frequency of tonsillitis and sore throats. On Christmas Eve, he saw a seven-year-old girl with a severely sore throat. Her Eskimo mother would not permit him to examine her fully without the child’s Norwegian father present, and the father had left the area on business. The little girl died four days later. This was now the second death from tonsillitis. Deaths from tonsillitis do occur, but even in the days before antibiotics they were extremely rare. When news came that four other native children had died after suffering from sore throats, Welch began to suspect that something was seriously amiss.

Diphtheria is an airborne bacteria that thrives in the moist membranes of the throat and nose and releases a powerful toxin that makes its victims tired and apathetic. In two to five days, other, more deadly symptoms would appear: a slight fever and red ulcers at the back of the throat and in the mouth. As the bacteria multiplied and more of the toxin was released, the ulcers thickened and expanded, forming a tough, crusty, almost leathery membrane made up of dead cells, blood clots, and dead skin. The membrane colonized ever larger portions of the mouth and the throat, until it had nowhere left to go and advanced down the windpipe, slowly suffocating the victim. [The Cruelest Miles, p. 36]

On January 20, a three year old boy from Nome, Billy Barnett, displayed the characteristic gray membrane of diphtheria. Dr. Welch was no longer just guessing. Since the diphtheria antitoxin his hospital had on hand had expired, and the fresh antitoxin he had ordered during the summer of 1924 did not arrive before the Bering Sea froze completely that fall, Dr. Welch had no choice but to watch the tiny boy die. Then the day after Billy Barnett’s death, an Eskimo girl with obvious diphtheria died.

Dr. Welch understood the significance of the problem. During the influenza pandemic of 1918, the native population had attempted to flee the disease and instead spread it further. If a panic occurred, the disease would not be limited just to Nome’s population of about 1500. Diphtheria is highly contagious and the bacteria was capable of living for weeks outside a human host. Panicked flight would guarantee the spread of the epidemic faster and farther. Containing it, especially during northwest Alaska’s brutal winter, would be impossible.

The town council met and was informed of the dire circumstances. Nome had been devastated by the flu pandemic six years before, losing more than half its population. Of 300 orphans created by the flu pandemic in all of Alaska, 90 of them were in Nome. The men were well aware of the seriousness of the situation.

The decision was made to quarantine the town and to prohibit any group gatherings. Children, the ones most likely to be affected by the disease, would not be permitted to leave their homes at all. Two urgent telegraphs were sent. One went to the US Public Health Service in Washington, DC. The other was an all-points bulletin for the entirety of Alaska.

Nome’s medical care team was quickly overwhelmed by sick children exhibiting the same symptoms. Not only was a deadly epidemic spreading rapidly through the town and neighboring villages, but Dr. Welch’s medical facility, the best in the region, was cut off from the rest of the world by pack ice and the harsh arctic winter. While this might be good inasmuch as a quarantine was concerned, no one would survive the epidemic to tell about it unless a delivery of antitoxin got to Nome fast.

Keep in mind, now: it’s the dead of winter two degrees below the arctic circle. The sea is frozen. There is no rail service within 700 miles of Nome. Even today there are no roads in or out of Nome, and in 1925 truck transport over such a distance, without roads, was completely out of the question.The only available airplane was a World War I model with an open cockpit – this was 1925 – which would have been almost certain suicide for the pilot in the dead of the North Alaskan winter.

The only way to get the serum to Nome was by dog sled, if serum could even be found.

To be continued…

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