With Modern Agriculture, Green Giant Not So Jolly

In southern Minnesota, the Jolly Green Giant soars more than fifty-five feet above Interstate 90.  Though modeled after the Green Giant brand “mascot,” he was erected by the Blue Earth community and stands for the prominence of crop production in the area.  Many farmers here make a good living from the soil, but often at a cost to the health of the environment and themselves that is not so jolly.

Green Giant
Green Giant

Through hail and thunderstorm, I drive over the flat plains of my home state.  In Martin County, I  talk with a resident who says, “This is the biggest ag’ county in the state, maybe the whole country.”  Evidence of agriculture is all around us in vast brown fields.  It’s April and the bare dirt awaits cultivation of corn and soybeans.

Average farm size around here is 443 acres.  The chemicals and machinery of modern agriculture mean bigger farms with fewer workers required.  The population of the 730 square mile county is just over 20,000 and has been decreasing.

Cancer, however, is on the rise.   The county lies west of Rochester, home of the famous Mayo Clinic.  “At Mayo Clinic,” the local guy says, “they see cancer and they say, oh, yeah, you’re from Martin County.”  Farmers here tend to make liberal use of insecticides, pesticides, and all those “cides” that can also lead to subtle, slow, unintended homicide and suicide.  They seem to be killing themselves and their neighbors with poisons.

Do such toxins remain in frozen peas and corn we buy at the grocery store?  That concern is one reason I buy organic when I can.

According to Scorecard that keeps track of pollution by area, Martin County is known as one of the worst counties in the United States for “air releases of suspected carcinogens,” along with endocrine toxicants and immunotoxicants.  In other words, substances designed to disrupt hormonal and immune systems in pests can affect us, too.

While people on huge combines and tractors profit off the land, they repay Mother Nature by altering just about every inch of her.  How do people earn an income while protecting an ecological system?  Is recovery possible?  Martin County is forever changed and will probably never be the prairie land it once was.  The bison and other factors that helped create the prairies are too long gone for that.  Poet Wendell Berry writes, As the machines come and the people go/ the old names rise, chattering, and depart.  We humans have the knowledge and ability to live well with the land.  Berry says, do not tell it to a machine to save it.  Reach back to other times and reach out to other cultures, beyond the corporate giants to people themselves.  The land teaches us, if we watch and listen.  If we take time.

Landscapes are slow to change, but we humans can change today by treating environments as our communities rather than our commodities.  In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold wrote that our land ethic depends on our attitude: “man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.”  There is no separation between our health and the health of the soil, air, and water upon which we depend.

Let me end on a hopeful note for Earth Day (and Week).  The Martin County resident tells me he’s raising bees now.  He thought about the needs of the bees and started growing native plants for them to visit and pollinate.  One conscious, sensible, loving step leads to another, and that is jolly good.

Midwest farm
Midwest farm


Here’s the Kingsmen’s goofy song about the Green Giant, ho ho ho.

March Snow

Let me write about snow before it melts away with the coming of spring.

Sled on a snowy day, Huntley Illinois
Sled on a snowy day in Huntley, Illinois

I like snow!  I’m not a golfer but I spent a good part of of my childhood at the Northfield Golf Club because it had the nearest sledding hill.  My friend, Amy, and I would drag our sleds or snow saucers over to the golf course hill, just east of Prairie Street in Northfield, Minnesota.  Covered in boots, snowpants, parkas, mittens, and ski masks, we immediately hit the slope as if it was our job to smooth the entire hill into a cohesive, slippery mass.  We carefully walked up the same part of the hill each time so as to preserve the best runs.  Other children came and went, but we were the most devoted sledders, often staying till after dark.

The owners of the golf course put up with us, even when we tromped into the club house to use the restroom.  I remember coming out of a stall with my ski mask on as a startled woman said, “Oh, honey, the little boy’s room is across the hall.”  I must have looked more like an ice-encrusted abominable snowman than a little girl!

Even as an adult, I am always on the lookout for a good hill.  When our children were little, we had a slope behind our house that we enjoyed in winter.  It was nothing, though, compared to what one Minnesota family did in their backyard!  They engineered their own snow slide as if it was a winter water park.  I understand why people in D.C. recently defied the ban on sledding on Capitol Hill.  It’s a hill and it has snow.  What else is it for?

Some of us like the cold, white stuff we get for a few months of the year.  Here’s Robert Frost’s appreciation of snowflakes raining on his head:


The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given me heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Winter walk
Winter walk

Yes, the fresh, sparkly snow can shine through our shadows of glumness.  When I start dwelling on the blooper reel of my life, ruing, to use Frost’s word, all my dumb mistakes, I need to reboot.  Snow does that.  It offers a clean slate and a shot at redemption, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) wrote in these stanzas of her poem, March Snow:

When winter dies, low at the sweet spring’s feet

Let him be mantled in a clean, white sheet.

Let the old life be covered by the new:

The old past life so full of sad mistakes,

Let it be wholly hidden from the view

By deeds as white and silent as snow-flakes.

Ere this earth life melts in the eternal Spring

Let the white mantle of repentance fling

Soft drapery about it, fold on fold,

Even as the new snow covers up the old.

The end of winter used to be considered the start of the new year in some cultures.  Hibernation is over.  New life begins!  It makes sense.  As for me, until the snow is all gone, I’m going to get out there and enjoy it.

Good skiing weather
Good skiing weather

Napa Crush: Joys of Northern California

Cabernet Grapes in Napa
Cabernet Grapes in Napa

I’m on the left coast of America and I love this fertile place beyond reason. Like the wine we sampled on our Schramsberg tour, Napa Valley contains joy that effervesces through my system, carried on the tiniest bubbles known to humans.

I lick the juice of sweet persimmon off my fingers so I can type this without sticking to the keys. Kaki, as my mother-in-law called them, hang from trees, round and shining like Christmas ornaments. I plucked one and brought it with me to our daughter’s cottage, cut the fruit into bright orange wedges and sucked the flesh right off the skin.

Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard
Persimmon at Larkmead Vineyard

The vineyards stretch luxuriously here, the way cornfields do back home. This cottage, in fact, is in a vineyard. In October its Cabernet grapes were crushed into nectar of the gods. Now we can pick the stray blue-black orbs left behind and crush our own. My daughter’s boyfriend brings me a Mason jar of the stuff to swig and it is divine. I’m going out on a limb here saying this, but who needs the fermentation? It’s mighty fine as is. Alex will make it into “cranbernet,” his version of cranberry sauce, for our dinner. I swipe the ink of grapes off my lips and continue typing. But I am at a loss for a way to turn black and white characters into the burst of life and warmth that is California.

The smells alone undo me. Eucalyptus trees, yes. We smelled them when we went to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Then there was the straw scent of o-cha, green tea, in our cups as we sat in the Japanese Garden. But the year-round floral fragrances are what take me back to my family’s stay in Berkeley when I was four. Imprinted on me, coming from frozen Minnesota, were the flowers and fruit we could enjoy year round. Surrounding our clapboard house were fields of flowers where I wandered and looked for snails while my sisters went to school.

The California closet of my brain seems to hold potpourri from our family’s sabbatical year. Activated by each return trip, scent memories from my limbic storehouse make me goofy with delight as soon as I sniff the air. My mood is mellowed and my expectations are primed for more sensual delights to come. I feel woozy while I’m there and, upon departure, am struck by a longing the Germans might call sehnsucht and the Portuguese saudade, “the love that remains.” For the Japanese, this feeling is natsukashii, a good memory infused with melancholy, a nostalgia that is futokoro, felt in the heart.

We harvest Emily’s rosemary, marjoram and sage, to be rubbed with butter under the turkey’s skin, and carrots and peppers for my wild rice dish. Sweet potatoes are turned into latkes. I hear a buck bawling in the forest for a mate as we set the picnic table for our holiday dinner. Alex’s father serves curried persimmon soup and our outdoor Thanksgiving feast begins.

Whether in wine country or not, this state intoxicates me. My experiences of California tend to have all the elements of a memorable date: wine, succulent food, heart-stirring beauty, perfumed breezes, and scanty clothing. I feel in love and yet not committed. I will have a passionate affair, prone to quakes and upheavals, and then, honestly, I want to go back to the sturdy middle of the continent with its parkas, Sorel boots, and the smell of corn stalks plowed into the loam. Because it’s home.

(This piece is also available in the frisky and thoughtful online magazine, REALIZE.)

Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Fransisco

Faraway for the Holiday

At the gate to the National Marae (Meeting House)
At the gate to the National Marae



If you find yourself at the end of the earth at the end of November, stop before you get to Antarctica and have Thanksgiving. The Maori will feed you, as long as you observe protocol.

First, wait outside to be welcomed. By welcomed I mean that men rush toward you with clubs and spears. Try to maintain some dignity as they slap their naked thighs and chests and show their teeth. They glare at you and thrust their tongues down their black-patterned chins, but you remain calm and friendly. That’s when they invite you into their Meeting House.

Nov. 1996
Maori Haka in New Zealand

Next, it is important to notice the wooden carvings of ancestors, considered the keepers of the House. Greet them more humbly than you were greeted. In the dining area, you see leaf-wrapped vegetables and seafood lifted from an underground oven. Sit, eat, and get to know the people. You are in the living heart of this island’s culture, even if it is for the sake of your tourist dollars. You are with this land’s first people and they want you to know who they are. Give thanks, even without a turkey to carve.

Christchurch, New Zealand
Barb with carving of a Maori ancestor, Keeper of the Marae (gathering place)

After an alarming start, you relax and start to feel at home. You converse with the men and women. They turn out to be gracious and kind, yet they are tenacious enough, in governing New Zealand, to insist on upholding their treaty rights against great odds.

Lastly, your hosts escort you outside. They give you the traditional hongi farewell, pressing their foreheads against yours as if transferring kind thoughts into your brain. The moment feels timeless. When you turn at the gate to wave goodbye, you see their teeth again, but now they are surrounded by smiles.


If you are like me, those smiles remain tattooed on your brain, beckoning you back to the people of Aotearoa, Land of the Long White Cloud. Once you have crossed the bridge between hearts, distance means nothing. The end of the earth is not so far away.

Traditional hongi
Traditional hongi

Awesome Life: Take Time to Savor

2014-05-02 13.52.04

Yes, you can get high on nature.  And, doctor’s orders, you should, for your own happiness, let it blow your mind.  The humbling emotion of awe can transform your life and revise your view of the world.  About 75% of the time, the feeling is elicited by nature, according to Sierra magazine.  It is an energized pleasure that seems almost on the brink of fear, touching infinity or at least something beyond ourselves.

What triggers awe?  Flowers?  For some people, yes.  Clouds are ordinary yet can be seen as awesome, particularly at dawn and dusk.

As Scott Russell Sanders wrote in A Brief History of Awe (2006), witnessing a thunderstorm on his porch as a child first provoked the feeling in him.  Sanders is a soulful environmental writer, sensitive to both brutality and beauty.  He is as much a conscientious affirmer of life as he is a deeply conscientious objector to war.  His memoir is a beautiful study of love for the world and its beings.  His Earth Works essays continue in that vein.

Being awestruck is a good thing as researchers at Stanford confirmed and as described in this video.  I remember walking with my husband for twenty miles through a misty fern forest and emerging onto a rocky beach of a New Zealand fjord.  The view of mountains and sparkly water was spectacular.  Taking the experience clear over the top were the yellow-browed penguins nearby, hopping from rock to rock.  That was a big kind of awesomeness to be in an extraordinary place I’d never seen before with creatures that charmed the socks off us.  But I also like the everyday experiences that fill me with a sense of the sacred.  Seeing a pair of crows, common as they are, in a tree can be awesome, too.  Crows and ravens are as intelligent as human toddlers and I view them as protectors, listening for their warning calls.

Pair of crows in a white pine tree.
Pair of crows in a white pine tree.

Being grateful also has some benefits and is certainly enhanced by allowing ourselves to be awed and moved, as suggested here.  Take time to smell the roses, a baby’s head, and your dog’s paws that smell like popcorn.  Notice and acknowledge those who enhance your life.

While standing on the vast shore of Lake Superior, I take in the whole vista of sky, sand, and November breeze, and soak it in.

Lake Superior beach, November 2014
Lake Superior beach, November 2014

Then I turn my attention to the small miracles of agates and other stones along the beach.  Whether or not I reach the worshipful level of awe, I take time to savor.  And in savoring, I believe, is the salvation of the world.

Pebbles on the shore
Pebbles on the shore
Evening clouds
Evening clouds

Wilderness Act Commemorated on Lake Superior

It’s Saturday, September 27, and we are boating from Bayfield.  I’ve never seen the Apostle Islands before, so I drove from Chicago to northern Wisconsin for this chance to have a cruise with fellow Sierra Club members and some knowledgeable speakers.  It is a beautiful day to see the fall colors and  the islands of Lake Superior.

Our ship, the Island Princess
Our ship, the Island Princess

The first speaker is Tia Nelson whose father Gaylord Nelson was a Wisconsin senator and governor.  Nelson established Earth Day and his daughter is a conservationist, too.  She explains how it wasn’t just her dad who created the Gaylord Nelson Wilderness Act fifty years ago.  Many people worked together to protect this natural area.  Now, with a colossal Gogebic Taconite (GTac) mine proposed for nearby Penokee Range that will pollute land, air, and water, Tia urges us to work together again to protect our resources that are not only aesthetically pleasing but vital to our existence.

Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman
Tia Nelson talks with Captain Sherman

There are about 136 passengers on board.  We visit the snack table and talk with each other during our two-hour cruise.  Devon Cupery tells me about the film she produced about the mine issue.  Neil Howk, a park ranger with the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, describes each of the islands we pass.  All but one (Madeline Island) of the 22 islands are part of our National Park system, so they are no longer clear-cut for timber or quarried for brownstone but are left for wildlife and people to enjoy.  The boat pauses by Raspberry Island so we can take pictures of its lighthouse.

Raspberry Island Lighthouse
Raspberry Island Lighthouse

The last speaker, Mike Wiggins, is a compelling storyteller, painting a broad, almost mythical picture of the issues at hand.  I stop taking photos out the window of the boat and listen to him talk about protecting this rich land of fresh water, forests, and wildlife.  Mike is Chair of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe whose 125,000 acres of reservation would be hugely impacted by the taconite mine.  Their wild rice beds and Lake Superior itself, the holder of 10% of the world’s surface fresh water, would be polluted by mercury and other run-off from the mining process.  Chris Cline of GTac and the governor of the state eliminated laws and rules regulating the disposal of toxic mine wastes, following Cline’s pattern of destruction in other states and countries.

Mike calls Cline a windigo, a ravenous giant from Ojibwe tales.  He always wants more.  “Chris Cline is so hungry, he ate the state of West Virgina!  After he ruined that place, he took bites out of Illinois and now he’s coming for Wisconsin,” Mike says, explaining that windigo is the spirit of excess and can be vanquished by the powers of love and cooperation for the greater good.  Both humans and Mother Earth, he says, are endowed with an energy from the Creator, and when we call on that, there will be no mine.  Mike and the other speakers are role models for challenging the motives of greed and profit.  We can do better, they tell us.

I remember the Gordon Lightfoot song about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.  The 29 lives on board that Great Lakes ship were lost partly due to greed.  The Fitzgerald was carrying 4000 tons more taconite iron ore than it was designed to hold, making it hard to maneuver when pounded by waves in a storm.  It sank in Lake Superior in 1975.  As the lyrics go, “That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed/ When the gales of November came early.”

Will our natural resources be chewed to the bone by  storms of windigos?  As Tia Nelson said, it’s up to us to appreciate and protect what we have.  And on this September day, what we have is spectacular.

Apostle Island sandstone formation
Apostle Island sandstone formation
Cormorant on the pier
Cormorant on the pier
Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend
Mike Wiggins, Bad River Band of Ojibwe, and friend

The Water is Dead: Contamination of the Kishwaukee

When the oxygen level of a lake is zero, that water, for practical purposes, is dead.  Certainly all aquatic organisms in water having less than 1 milligram per liter of dissolved oxygen perish.

You know that water behind my house I call the duck pond?  Sometimes I write about it or share pictures of the ducks and egrets there.  The Environmental Protection Agency says it may have been contaminated by a truck spill.  So they posted a warning sign (photo below) there and at other sites along the Kishwaukee River system.

We know the water is unhealthy because the EPA tested it on July 31, after reports of hundreds of dead fish, and found no oxygen in some areas.  The disaster was featured on the news.  The cause for the die-off is traced back to a July 25 semi tractor-trailer accident on nearby Illinois Tollway 90.  My husband and I saw the smoke and flames from that truck accident, but we didn’t realize that the truck was spilling a concrete curing agent called Ethoxylated C10-16 Alcohol into the ditch.

Duck pond contaminated
Huntley water contaminated




Below is a photo I took of the truck on fire two weeks ago.  I-90 is under construction and you can see a ditch with water in the foreground.  On July 29, Illinois EPA’s Office of Emergency Response started investigating the source of the water contamination.  An environmental consultant for the trucking company involved in the accident disposed of the dead fish, sucked up some of the pollution, and sent water samples to a lab in Singapore.  The trucking company received a violation notice from EPA.

The Kishwaukee River system includes our duck pond and local lake.  We don’t know yet the full extent of the contamination.  We’ll see what happens.  I hope our water comes back to life.




I miss the egrets.

Egret on the "duck pond" before the contamination
Egret on the “duck pond” before the contamination