Canaries in the Mine

Myth: Industrial agriculture benefits the environment and wildlife.

My first reaction to my seasonal allergies was denial cloaked in disbelief. Two weeks, maybe a bit more if I was honest, of itchy places only my tongue could reach. No matter how sharp my tongue could be, it wasn’t sharp enough to provide any euphoria that the pain of scratching brings, much less actual relief.

“Must be the ragweed,” Dad said.

“But, I never had it before. Thank you Guatemala.” I had lost something, a kind of resistance, if that was possible. I blamed my absence, instead of the presence of something else.

“But, I’ve heard it’s like a cup. Eventually everybody has a point where the cup spills over,” Dad rationalized.

I stared at my father who had lived in the same place all his life. He showed no hint of sneezing. I was the weaker one. I couldn’t shake that feeling though he hadn’t really implied it.

“I figure people like you are just canaries in the mine,” he added.

Myth: Industrial food is cheap.

I returned from two weeks in Israel to visit my brother and saw an official looking letter on the kitchen table. It was addressed to “resident”. The text further explained that the recipient of the letter was determined to live in an area identified with a high level of nitrates in the water. UW-Extension was having a meeting about possible solutions.

“Are you going to go?” I asked my father.

“And do what?”

“What do you mean? Aren’t you curious?”

“We haven’t had trouble with that before.” He went on to list areas with poorer drainage or problematic soils that would have trouble we wouldn’t. “Good reason to live on a hill. Everything runs away. Besides,” he paused. “I’d be sitting there next to the farmers that rent my land and put that stuff into the groundwater, and then I’m going to raise my hand and implicate them as the problem. How’s that going to work?”

We lived off of tainted money, I knew. When hacking up whichever pollen residue plagued me each summer, I had known. The canaries in the mine were affected, some sick, others perhaps a breath from death, and we were still a kind of scab scooting the picket line, bending our backs to duck into a dark, cavernous entrance.

Dad didn’t attend the nitrate meeting. I considered it, despite the RSVP I had missed. Still, I would arrive close to a half an hour late because of work. I skipped it.

“I can test the water though, I guess. Probably a good idea,” he shrugged.

Myth: Industrial agriculture is efficient.

The test came back with high nitrate levels. Dad presented me with a flyer that detailed who was most at risk and the most likely causes. Not farming fertilizers but septic drainage topped the list.

“The lady said you could look up water systems,” Dad informed me.

I scoured. I wound around in confused tunnels from one link on the county website to the next. More repetition of the same. They did not provide references nor recommendations for water purification devices. I shook my head. “We can call hardware stores. Businesses. Can’t find any ‘assistance’ provided by the county.” Which is what he had understood from the letter.

“On our own, huh?”

“Yeah.”

Myth: Biotechnology will solve the problems of industrial agriculture.

Not a week later, I overheard Dad talking to his cousin on the phone. Another meeting, this time at our town hall. He had actually been attending those rather regularly since the issue of gravel trucks and illegal semi use of our road had made his nose hairs tickle. A sneeze here or there. A clearing of the throat. Early warning signs? I only caught pieces of phrases without real punctuation.

“Drainage. Prevailing winds.”

Not really a meeting, an informational session. A neighbor was selling land to a chicken farm. It was the same neighbor who had attempted to sell the same land to a dairy operation. The township zoning laws had prevented that sale.

“Packed. Emotion. Court. Townships. State law.”

Myth: Industrial food is safe, healthy, and nutritious.

“Are you going?” I asked before I left for work.

“Probably not. It’s just informational for neighbors. They’re not going before the board yet. For now, just the immediate neighbors’ll be there. 8-10 semis a day. That sure is a lot of eggs.”

Myth: Industrial food offers more choices.

“Will it smell?” I asked, sensing the coating of liquid manure stench my skin imagines it wears on humid, summer morning walks. I knew we were no longer in the opening or the elevator of the mine shaft. He and I are underground. We’re dirty. Our sweat is crusted with soot. Smoky earth.

“Two holding tanks. Say they’ll dry the shit first. But, can you imagine that in the air.”

“Will anyone fight it?” I stood at the door in the rumble of another illegal semi storming down our road, the straightest road. No one raised their voice. No one stood together.

“They don’t care,” Dad said too matter-of-factly.

“Who?”

“Farmers. It’s a place to sell corn to. They’ll go for it, even if they slit their own throats. That chicken farm, they’ll buy their corn, then buy from big company that’s cheaper.”

I said nothing. Afraid if I spoke I would cough in the middle. Sneeze so many times in succession with the particles in my lungs that any words would be unintelligible.

“Farmers don’t like being told what to do. Not used to it,” he reminded me again. Cave-ins and explosions were types of freedom too. Particles free from their boundaries. Unrestricted energy and movement. Was “farmer” the right word? Was there a ‘right’ way to do things?

Dad followed me out the door to feed his chickens. He retold a story about entire flocks killed from avian disease. Entire chicken operations wiped out. And then what happens? It’s the miners that remain trapped. Buried. It’s the miners that die slow lung disease deaths. Suffocated. It’s the miners who stare through bars of the canary’s cage, spaces vacant of birdsong.

We didn’t attend the meeting. His sister recounted that it was emotional. Its ugliness even included the implication that immigrant workers would rob stuff around the neighborhood. I evoked images of steep mountainsides and men bent in fields. Despite not speaking Spanish, or Kaqchikel, those were the farmers, with whom Dad shared a language.

“But we’ll have eggs. That’s their argument,” Dad finished.

“But, we don’t need eggs.”

“No.”

Myth: Industrial agriculture will feed the world.

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