Tuesday, August 30, 2011

hurricane, part one: the waters rise

Some brief scenes from the middle of the storm on Sunday. Reprinted with permission from the Valley News.

Standing in the rain in an empty parking lot outside the Red Cross emergency shelter at Hartford High School, Kristie Potter embraced her boyfriend, Kam McIntyre.
The couple, along with three of Potter's children and their beagle, Cash, had just been evacuated from their home at the Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock, which, by all accounts, was completely submerged by the Ottauquechee River.
“There were cars floating down the river, people who can't get out,” said Potter as she stepped inside, her eyes red. “My father just called and said our trailer is underwater.”
As she spoke, her 11-year-old son, Lane Lowery, came up and hugged her.
“Mom, is our trailer damaged at all?” he said, looking up with wide eyes.
“Yes,” Potter said.
“How bad?”
“Bad enough,” she said. “Bad enough that we can't live in it anymore.”
Potter said she didn't have insurance on the mobile home, which, as she and her family fled, had already been swept by the rising water and pinned against a tree in the neighbor's yard. The home normally sits about 100 feet from the river.
Her parents were still stranded in their car at the highest point in the park, waiting for a boat to come rescue them, she said.
“We had to go the long way around” to get to Hartford, Potter continued. They drove their '98 Saab through as much as two feet of water to get to the shelter. “There were a couple spots where Kam shouted, ‘Should we go for it?' and I said, ‘Gun it. Go. Otherwise we’re not getting out.’”
Potter had enough time to grab some extra clothes, her laptop and a hard drive full of photos before being evacuated, she said.
“And our dog. We couldn't really fit much in the car with all five of us in there.”
Standing in the still-quiet shelter at about 3:30 p.m. yesterday, Potter contemplated her family's future. “We don't know how long we’re going to have to stay here,” she said. “We’ve just got to regroup and figure out what to do next. We're all safe.”
“And that’s all that matters,” Lane chimed in.

In Woodstock, where Route 4 hugs the Green, a policewoman (who declined to give her name) stood in front of a line of cars with their headlights on, windshield wipers rhythmically sweeping away the rain.
“Where you heading today?” she asked each driver who stopped and rolled down a window. “I'm sorry, that's not possible. There’s a shelter at the elementary school on Route 106.”
Residents from Bridgewater, Pomfret and Barnard on their way home were stranded in Woodstock, including one woman who had come to Cumberland Farms to get snacks and wasn't allowed to drive back home because of swiftly rising water. The woman stormed angrily out of the emergency shelter at Woodstock Elementary School, muttering, “They should've told me” as she strode back into the rain.
“I don't think anyone anticipated this,” said Christine Blaiklock, a special education teacher at the school who abandoned her own flooding home on River Road to volunteer at the school. “It's a crisis.”
As she spoke around 5:45 p.m., around 20 people had already sought refuge at the shelter, but the Red Cross hadn't yet arrived. Blaiklock and Principal Karen White were doing their best to help those who came in, but all they were able to offer was whatever information had been passed to them, along with a telephone and some granola bars and drinking water from the local fire department.
Barefoot and drenched, 18-year-old Tiffany LaRocque had walked across town to see if she could help, while 15-year-old Alexandra Raymond stood next to Blaiklock, offering what little information she could.
“The entire trailer park got wiped out,” Raymond commented. “And the high school flooded. We saw all the soccer nets go by. The river came up our backyard, and a transformer blew and caught a tree on fire, but the tree fell into the river.”
“There are people in Bridgewater we haven't been able to get a hold of to see if they're alright,” LaRocque added.
Nancy Kendall, of Bridgewater, had been on a biking trip in Montreal with her husband, Ernest, when they heard a storm was on its way. They drove home, but after sitting in the car for hours, couldn't get farther than Woodstock. For a while, the couple thought they were stranded: cell phones not working, roads closed all around them. They thought they were going to have to sleep in their car in a parking lot.
“Hallelujah you're here,” Kendall said to Blaiklock. “We feel so grateful.”

Across from the makeshift shelter, David Olds stood drinking a beer at the bar of the Woodstock Inn. Around him, some people seemed to be reveling in the unexpected adventure, drinking beer and wine out of plastic cups, helping themselves to the cold buffet, laughing quietly in the candlelight that lit the room. Others sat alone, heads in hands.
“We're going to have a lot of clean-up to do,” said Olds, a custodian at the inn's racquet and fitness center. The inn's first floor was flooded as Olds spoke around 6 p.m. The generator was submerged as well, and staff rushed around, trying to assess the situation and keep guests as happy as possible.
“They're doing the best they can,” Olds said.
Olds, 26, had been evacuated from company housing at about 3 p.m. and said he would likely spend the night at the inn without running water or electricity. Some guests were trying to get back to the highway, cutting short their vacations. Others had little choice but to ride out the weather.
“Here we are,” Olds said with a shrug. “We'll see what happens. At least the (beer) taps are still working.”

In Taftsville, Kerry Rosenthal stood under an umbrella and watched the roaring water of Happy Brook inch closer to the front door of the house she rents along its banks. Though her initial comment to the situation was a blurted expletive, Rosenthal seemed to be taking the damage in stride.
“I'm not worried,” she said. “I got my guitars out. As long as I have him” -- she gestured to her boyfriend, Eric Fritz -- “and my guitars, I'm good.”
Rosenthal said she would likely spend the night at Fritz's house, also in Taftsville. His power was out, but the house was on higher ground and it seemed, for the time being, as though it would be safe from the floodwaters raging in the Ottauquechee and its tributaries.
Just up the road, a crowd had gathered next to the Taftsville Bridge, which has stood above the Ottauquechee since 1836. Some residents feared it wouldn't last the night.
Some barefoot, others in rain boots, some huddling under umbrellas and others clad in brightly-colored rain gear, people stood in small groups with their friends and neighbors and watched what Windsor resident Dan Cowdrey called “mother nature's raw power.”
“I'm admiring the beauty,” Cowdrey said while snapping pictures of the trees, tires and propane gas tanks tearing through the brown torrent beneath him. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I don't want to miss it.”
“I didn't expect to see so many propane tanks floating down the river,” he added. The air was rank with the scent of propane, apparently from what Cowdrey estimated to be a hundred or more tanks from the flooded yard of Dead River Propane company. (Dead River officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.)
Cowdrey wasn't concerned about his own home flooding, though getting home could prove difficult, he said. “That might be the trick.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

thoughts on returning east.

Sundays are good for daydreaming. I came to Lowell Lake on my way through Londonderry today, picked the dirt road turnoff from the cobwebs of my memory and flew down it with the windows open. I came to a picnic table on the piney lake shore with a bag of cherries, a cup of coffee, the Sunday paper, a notebook and a pen. It's an undeveloped lake shore, and in my memory it's a quiet, wild place, with beaver dens and pine snags looming in the mist. But as I write this, a loud family just pulled into the parking area, and from somewhere through the woods comes the unmistakable whine of ATVs. Sunday morning motorsports. They have as much a right to use this land as I do, but I feel a perturbed, sanctimonious displeasure bubble up. I dislike almost anything big, loud and intrusive. I prefer my wilderness without other people.

I haven't found much of that in the Northeast. Funny – it feels so over-crowded, so tame around here at times, but early yesterday morning from atop Mount Cardigan, I had the the expansive vista nearly to myself, green rolling hills giving way to hazy blue mountaintops. Just one little town with a white steeple stood out in a 360-degree panorama of forest and sky. I wondered how it is that I can possibly feel hemmed in, claustrophobic here, when I'm surrounded by all this undeveloped forest, more land than I can conceive knowing, all of it crawling with streams, freckled with lakes, crammed with bear dens and snake holes and bird nests. Why do I feel like solitude is such a commodity?

Solitude was easy to come by in Idaho. Here, it seems like every piece of land is governed in some way, either by private landowners or well-intentioned public officials trying to preserve it from the ravages of overuse. Vermont ranks 30th in population density, with just shy of 68 inhabitants per square mile, below the national average of 87.4. Idaho ranks 42nd, with 19 inhabitants per square mile.

Still, the difference lies not in population density but rather in distribution of land. In Vermont, land is fragmented: 85 percent of it is privately owned, divided into parcels. In Idaho, only 40 percent of land is private; the remaining 60 percent is held in broad swaths by the Forest Service or BLM, much of it wide open and theoretically accessible to the public. In the middle of all those steep rocky gulches and sinuous mountain roads, it took no great doing to find yourself alone. You could pull over anywhere and pitch a tent, wander into the big, wild spaces; find a quiet place to sleep or walk or cast a fishing line without interruption. I felt uninhibited by regulations or restrictions, pregnant with possibilities.

This opens a can of worms, because fewer regulations and restrictions leads to greater abuse by unscrupulous or ignorant individuals or companies. Idaho is so vast it can handle such abuses more readily than tiny Vermont. The two are vastly different politically and demographically, and it seems that Vermonters care more about protecting their land and about making environmentally friendly choices – an attitude that is necessary, around here, and one which I welcome. Nonetheless, this extreme sense of stewardship leads to a feeling that Adam once described as “the eviction of the American public from their lands.” Park here, pay here. Walk here. Don't go there, don't do that. It feels so restrictive at times.

Today, 80 percent of Vermont is forested, up from 20 percent only a century ago. Eighty percent forest cover is an encouraging number for somebody like me, someone not much concerned with Gross Domestic Product and more in love with ideas of wilderness and beauty. But though that's a lot of forested land, it's by no means pristine: much of it is recovering from various states and methods of disruption. Between agriculture, development and logging, there's only one tiny, tiny chunk of Vermont up in the Northeast Kingdom that has never been developed, according to a map I saw at Dartmouth College's library. Looking at a series of such maps that show human settlement of the state over a period of several hundred years is startling. European settlers began in the town of Windsor in 1761 and quickly seeped across the mountains like an ink stain on a piece of clean cotton. The land was largely razed, and now it's partially recovering – a delicate balance to strike when keeping people employed is also a major concern.

I'm always amazed when I look at photographs of the Vermont landscape and countryside from the early 1900s and compare them with the way a place looks today. The hillsides from those times look stark and bare, pocked with stumps and muddy ruts. While there's nothing surprising about the earth's ability to regenerate, to cover its scars with fresh growth – nor about humans' capability for destruction – many places from turn-of-the century photographs are nearly unrecognizable today. The landscape changed dramatically between 1700 and 1900, and again from the turn of the century to today, and it continues to be in a constant state of flux. The composition of the forest is changing – sometimes subtly and sometimes swiftly, as can attest anyone who remembers what a mature American chestnut looks like.

But the forest here has always been changing. Changing climates cut the land, drew some species north, sent others south. Even the primordial northern hardwood forest wasn't untouched before Europeans arrived: though larger and healthier than today's scraggly woods, it was altered significantly by native people practicing controlled burns. If our forests are changing faster than usual at this point in history, it's hardly surprising – everything goes faster these days.

It's chilly here on the lakeshore, and for a few blissful moments, it's quiet as well. The sky is overcast, a heavy leaden gray. The wind blows ripples on the lake and sends chills down my bare arms. I relax, then, out of nowhere, a guy with a weedwacker and one on a riding mower appear out of nowhere and pirouette viciously around my picnic table, paying no attention to my lazy Sunday afternoon. I get up and go to my car, irritated, but as I'm bumping back along the dirt road, I pause. A woman is bending over in her garden against the backdrop of a shaggy, dark green mountain, its rounded top shrouded in clouds. It's a simple scene, but it's beautiful and it stops me in my tracks. This is where I've chosen to live, and these are the problems I choose to face. 

Three favorites from the Green Mountain State:

And three from the Gem State:

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

sharing the surplus

reprinted with permission from the Valley News. not to be reproduced or distributed.

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Enfield -- With home gardening growing in popularity, sooner or later most burgeoning green thumbs face a dispiriting quandary:
   What do I do with this bevy of beets? This glut of garlic? This proliferation of peppers?
   The answer usually begins by offering surplus produce to family members, friends and coworkers. But it seems that every time you step out into the garden, there's more. You try surreptitiously giving away bunches of kale to people at the bus stop, or pawning it off on the unsuspecting receptionist at the dentist's office. But it just won't stop growing. Next comes a frantic Internet search on how to preserve the summer's bounty. Can one freeze squash? How many jars of pesto can a single household conceivably consume? Is there any  room left in the freezer for a carton of ice cream?
   Then comes the dreaded moment: tossing your hard-earned, home-grown food into the compost pile.
   "I hate throwing stuff away," moaned Bob Cavalieri, of Enfield, echoing every successful gardener's nightmare. "But every year I have a surplus and I didn't know what to do with it all.
   "One year, I had 78 butternut squash," he said. "I was eating two squash pies a week and giving away as many as I could, but that's just too many."
   Cavalieri might have found a solution. Three weeks ago, he started the Upper Valley Home Gardeners page on Facebook to connect backyard growers in the region and provide a resource for sharing, swapping or selling extra vegetables. So far, nearly 100 people have joined, and while there's a lot of room for growth, Cavalieri says the response is encouraging.
   "I'm really excited about it," he said, standing outside his garden in Enfield yesterday. "It's kind of taking off. It's a lot of fun and it's a good community service kind of thing."
   Cavalieri envisions an online venue where backyard gardeners like himself -- not commercial growers or farmers market vendors -- can chat about what they have lots of, and what they'd like more of. A post might say something like, "I've got a ton of cucumbers this year. Will trade for carrots or tomatoes, or sell two for a dollar."
   The idea, of course, is nothing new. People have been sharing produce for centuries. But today, a gardener in Norwich might not be aware of her fellow enthusiasts in Cornish, or an Upper Valley transplant from another state might not know who to share his greens with. Setting up a booth at a farmers' market or a farm stand on the side of the road takes time, commitment and financial investment -- something few backyard hobbyists are interested in.
   "I just looked for an outlet, something easy to do," Cavalieri said, noting that he's been trying to figure out for years how gardeners could effectively share their bounty. He considered selling at the Enfield farmers market, but didn't want to pay the fee. He's also posted on the Enfield community listserv, but that limits his outreach efforts to Enfield residents.
   When he used Facebook last year to market his private Grafton Pond campground, though, Cavalieri realized the social network would be an ideal way to connect gardeners across the Upper Valley.
   "I did it out of necessity," he said. "I think it's kind of a new thing with the internet age. It was kind of inevitable."
   Across the Northeast and the U.S., the interest in backyard gardening is soaring as food prices rise and consumers worry about the safety and quality of supermarket fruits and vegetables. The National Gardening Association in Burlington reported that in 2011, consumers spent nearly $3 billion on growing their own backyard food, a 20 percent increase over consumer gardening spending before the economic downturn in 2008.
   Though it seems like a lot of money, that $3 billion still represents a major savings in monthly food bills for most families that take up growing a portion of their own food. Cavalieri, a former bio-tech lab worker who's been gardening in the Upper Valley for 17 years, said the satisfaction and financial incentive of gardening is "wicked."
   "I like filling the freezer," he said. "Never having to buy any store-bought (tomato) sauce is a good feeling."
   The Upper Valley Home Gardeners' network isn't just about sharing food. Paul Hunt, of Bradford, is an avid collector of lilies, daffodils and irises who has never met Bob Cavalieri. But when he saw a link to Upper Valley Home Gardeners on Facebook, he didn't hesitate to join.
   "For me it will serve twofold," Hunt said. "It may be a source of flowers that I don't have, that I perhaps don't even know about that someone is offering up for trade or as surplus. It's also a way for me to prune my collection, if you will. Like so many of us, I have more varieties and more plants than I really need."
   Hunt gave away a purple day lily this week to another Bradford resident, Diane Chamberlain, whom he connected with via the Facebook page.
   "This was an opportunity to free up some space," Hunt commented, noting that one person's weed is another's treasure. "It can only help all of us who do flower and vegetable and fruit gardening," he added. "We can share what we know and we can share our surplus. I think it will be wonderful."
   Cavalieri hopes people will post questions about gardening pests or share helpful knowledge. He also hopes the new service will encourage people to expand their gardens and try new plants. He, for instance, is looking forward to sampling some bok choy for the first time later this week, when a new Facebook friend brings some over to swap.
   He's looking for takers for his beets, too. Beet greens are some of his favorite veggies to freeze, but he's not such a big fan of the tubers that grow beneath them. "I can eat them once," he said. "But to eat them over and over again ... that's terrible!"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


My life lately has been one big hairball, conflicting feelings tangled together, too matted to rip apart. Part of it, I think, is that I'm getting antsy again. Restless. Montana is calling to me, staggering mountains and cold trout streams with the morning mist settled over them. Utah, too: I want to explore canyons, pick my way through green chasms in the desert. I don't want to go on vacation; that's never been enough. I want to know a place, to feel its mornings unfold without the rush of trying to squeeze a month's worth of exploration into the brief space wedged between bookend workdays. I haven't left North America in four years.

The time I spend driving or laying in bed is filled with daydreams about the places I haven't been. I devour stories and poems and essays that other people write about these places, but they don't fill me up – they only make me more empty, full of longing. There is another part of me with a space to fill too, a space can only be satisfied with a piece of land, a cabin or old bungalow, a garden, a kitchen and a bed that stays in one place. Are these two conflicting desires, or are they one and the same?

I've been hypothesizing lately that some people, including myself, have become addicted to change. Change sets off endorphins or some sort of chemical reaction in your brain, doesn't it? Change the channel, change your shampoo – instant satisfaction. We come to expect new styles and new flavors, we get used to the constant parade of novelty that the media marches in front of us. It's accepted that you can become addicted to gambling or to the internet, but no one mentions an addiction to change.

Some people satisfy their cravings by going to the casino or going shopping; I satisfy mine by seeking out new places. I rarely cry when I say goodbye; friends and family cry for me, but when I get on a plane, all I feel is relief, followed by a rush of adrenaline.

That isn't wholly true. I mourn the past as well. I mourn what I leave behind.

But I usually go anyway. Up until this point, I haven't seen it as running away. I'm not running away from anything – I'm always just running toward something else, grasping for some glimmering speck on the horizon, golden in the setting sun. I've been traveling west, toward sunsets: away from sunrises.
Maybe I have been running away, escaping a fear of being stagnant, stuck, boring, placated. This year, I came back to a place that feels like home, hoping to give myself the chance to fulfill that other desire, the one that wants to stay put, but I'm already daydreaming about leaving. I don't question that I want to stay in one place and cultivate a life from it – I question whether I have fortitude for it. Can I defy the part of my brain that screams for change, and quietly tell myself to stay still? I'm pulled in two directions. My biggest fear is an ordinary life. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reproduced with permission from the Valley News. May not be reproduced or distributed. 

By Krista Langlois
Valley News Staff Writer

   Thetford -- Nicky Corrao can't keep track of how many household products are scented these days -- lavender-scented trash bags, "fresh and clean" dryer sheets, air fresheners, beauty products, cat litter, cleaning products.
   "If you read the label," Corrao said, "everything says 'fragrance' at the end."
   Corrao and a growing number of others who identify as having multiple chemical sensitivity (or, in medical circles, idiopathic environmental intolerance, or IEI) scrupulously avoid contact with such products. They say exposure to fragrances and other common chemicals provokes a multitude of symptoms, including nausea, headaches, migraines, difficulty breathing and general fatigue. As if those symptoms aren't bad enough, they say, their need to avoid exposure to the chemicals forces them to also deal with social isolation.
   "I think a lot of people just don't even realize" how many fragrances they're using, Corrao, 57, said at an interview at her home. "When you're used to it, you don't smell it anymore."
   Though there is skepticism that this degree of chemical sensitivity is a genuine affliction, a "fragrance free" movement has been emerging from it. The city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, enacted a municipal "No-Scent" awareness program five years ago to encourage "employees to be aware of others who may suffer allergies or sensitivities to fragrances."
   Evergreen State College in Washington has a campuswide fragrance free-policy, and here in the Upper Valley, the Northern Lights Quilt Guild maintains a fragrance-free meeting space and asks members to refrain from wearing fragrant products.
   Even for people who don't correlate health reactions to synthetic fragrances, sometimes just sitting next to someone who wears a strong scent is enough to bring them on board with the movement.
   "Many people who are not ill still have smelled enough of this for now, thank you," said Linda Papademas, of Enfield, who also said she has IEI.
   "I was tired of feeling like this crazy woman, but now I feel like more and more people are understanding," Corrao said. "Even just three years ago, people would say, 'Oh Nicky, she's just chemically sensitive, we have to be careful around her.'"
   Today, though, Corrao, Papademas and others in the Upper Valley, like Sharon Racusin of Norwich, are writing letters, talking to neighbors and trying to educate people about what they say are the effects of near-constant exposure to a multitude of petroleum-derived chemicals and fragrances.
   "These things are toxic," said Corrao. "They are made from petro-chemicals. And there is absolutely no government agency that regulates the fragrance industry."
   Corrao has a point: The Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires a list of ingredients on most products, but because fragrances are exempt, their chemical makeup has gone largely undocumented. Many companies protect the composition of their fragrances as trade secrets.
   Some environmental and public health groups have been trying to expose the chemical makeup of these unregulated scents. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group analyzed 17 popular fragrances last year and found that they contained 38 undisclosed synthetic chemicals, most of which had never been tested for safety. Many were categorized as "sensitizing" chemicals, which are said to be capable of causing allergic reactions in roughly 30 percent of the population.
   But though such chemicals are found in many home and beauty products, it's still up for debate whether they're the culprits behind the host of ailments suffered by people with IEI.
   Those in the fragrance-free camp insist that when they eliminate chemical scents from their lives, symptoms clear up. Those who shake their heads in disbelief like to point out that the people afflicted by IEI tend to be Prius-driving, Co-op-shopping, middle-aged white women. But one University of Texas study suggests that up to 5 percent of the population might be afflicted by some degree of IEI.
   Yale-educated Dr. Robert McLellan is head of the Live Well, Work Well program at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and chief of occupational and environmental medicine there. He said the medical community's decision to use the label "idiopathic environmental intolerance" in lieu of the more common "multiple chemical sensitivity" is to avoid confusion between this syndrome and a more clearly treatable and identifiable chemical sensitivity -- for example, when a person reacts when he or she comes in contact with poison ivy or suffers asthma triggered by air pollution.
   McLellan said that despite being idiopathic -- of unknown cause -- IEI is fairly well accepted by medical professionals.
   "What we now call IEI ... is a very well received and described syndrome. In my field and in the field of allergy, where people with this tend to end up, there are many, many physicians who have recorded thousands of patients who have come to them with complaints characterized by multiple symptoms provoked in environments that don't bother most people. Commonly, these people will ascribe this to a chemical odor in the environment.
   "Typically they say that these symptoms seem to come and go based on whether they're in what their perceive as a offending environment. ... But there's nothing a doctor can measure or see on most lab tests."
   It's this lack of a concrete cause-and-effect reaction that causes other medical professionals to doubt the authenticity of IEI.
   Edward Kent Jr., an allergist at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington with 20 years of experience, said he is "skeptical that such an entity exists."
   "There are no controlled studies to demonstrate (IEI's) presence, and if these do exist they do not behave in a fashion that medical illnesses are expected to behave in," Kent said. He said that, though he's seen patients who have self-diagnosed themselves with IEI, he has never treated such a patient, because "it's not a recognized disorder by the medical community, and it doesn't fall into the type of disorder that can be treated by allergists or physicians."
   Kent said he doesn't deny that the people who come to him have inexplicable and very real symptoms. However, he said, every five or 10 years a trendy new "disorder" crops up to explain these symptoms: A decade ago, it was chronic candidiasis, before that it was chronic mono, and now, Kent said, it's multiple chemical sensitivity.
   "I'm not denying the presence of the symptoms," Kent said. "I'm denying their conclusion as the cause of the symptoms. ... The people who are generally supporting this have a religious fervor about it."
   Still, McLellan said, just because something has an unknown cause and isn't measurable doesn't mean it's not real. Many people have chronic back pain that renders them disabled, McLellan said, and yet their CAT scans and MRIs show nothing wrong with their backs.
   When he gives lectures, McLellan will often ask how many people in the audience have ever felt bad, even nauseated, after being exposed to an odor: If you get sick eating pizza, will you feel nauseous next time you walk by that pizza place? Many people raise their hands and say yes.
   "We know a fair amount about what we call the chemo-sensory system," McLellan said. "People have evolved a very sophisticated sensory system to detect subtle changes in our environment. So we have the capability of tasting very, very subtle differences in chemical cocktails we're exposed to in, say, wine.
   "Someone who's good can tell you which side of a hill the grapes grew on," he continued. "Likewise, we have noses that are able to detect very subtle chemical variations in our chemical environment. The nose has two types of nerves: one is smell, the other is a chemical irritant sense.
   "It turns out when that nerve is stimulated there are things that happen in the brain and lungs almost as a type of reflex."
   But there's a difference between someone who's gotten a headache from a strong perfume and the kind of person who ends up in McLellan's office. The difference usually has to do with a reaction that affects one's quality of life or ability to function socially.
   "Now comes a critical question," McLellan said. "Why? Why can't they function normally? What's the difference?"
   It's a question that science hasn't yet answered. But one of the reasons that McLellan, who specializes in occupational medicine, works with so many IEI sufferers is because the condition has largely come to affect people in the workplace.
   At home, it's possible to switch to laundry detergents, cleaning products and beauty products that are "free and clear" of synthetic perfumes and dyes, thus largely avoiding the problem. But indoor spaces are becoming better insulated, and in poorly ventilated office buildings, people with IEI can rarely escape the chemical fragrances that co-workers trail behind them like second-hand smoke. Many people with chemical sensitivity say that the hardest thing isn't avoiding the chemicals or coping with the symptoms, but rather interacting with others.
   "Probably the most difficult thing about multiple chemical sensitivity is isolation, with the second most difficult being getting people to take us seriously," Linda Papademas wrote in an e-mail. "Living with symptoms is almost easy by comparison."
   Papedemas, 52, worked in an office (she prefers not to say which one) for many years. But after her immune system suffered from prolonged low-level carbon monoxide poisoning, she began to feel particularly sensitive to the synthetic fragrances that she suddenly noticed everywhere -- particularly at work.
   "Most people's clothing smells quite strong to me, and many give me a headache and I have a hard time breathing," she said. "I had to quit my job in January. I can't be around people who have used these products and have an air freshener behind their desk. ... My co-workers treated me like a hypochondriac."
   Sharon Racusin said she'd worked in the same office at DHMC for 20 years. "I worked with so many people, 200 a day coming in and out to the help desk, and it never bothered me," she said. But she thinks there's a chemical threshold, and one day, she reached it.
   It got so bad that she had to be transferred to a new office, where she now sits behind closed doors in her own room. "DHMC was wonderful" in accommodating her condition, she said.
   For Corrao, a cancer survivor who does her bookkeeping work from home, "it's really hard to tell someone you're close to that they can't come in your house. It's embarrassing."
   There are lots of things that I can make decisions about," Corrao said, "but I want to be part of society and be around people I love, and I can't control what they're choosing."
   "Many people just love (these scents) so much that they can't see that they're harming you, and maybe harming themselves as well," Papedemas said.
   Papademas said that when her neighbors do laundry, the air coming from their dryer vents is so "intrusive" she must go indoors and close all her windows. She hopes that if people know she and others like her are out there, they might choose different products, those that are fragrance free.
   "I think a little neighborly consideration and awareness would go a long way," she said.

three loons in the fog

Thursday, August 11, 2011

two poems about lazy afternoons.

When I take a bath
on June 6th
the condensation
(such an unpoetic word)
beads on my beer bottle--
deschutes brewery, inversion ipa.
the bathroom mirror fogs.
the overhead light slightly
too bright for my liking,
but candlelight proved too dark to read by,
and reading the atlantic, listening to duke ellington
proved necessary to my satisfaction this evening
after eight solid weeks in the field.
it proved important, also, to my perspective of my legs--
foreign objects!--
as i stretched them out of the water,
knees at eye level,
recently shaved;
even--i thought optimistically--remotely tan-looking
in this artificial light.
my toenails are painted a startling fuscia
to hide the fact that the two big ones
have split in half horizontally from being wet 10 hours a day
paddling down the river.
i can make my knees become small islands,
connect the dots of the freckles on my arms,
pool water in my bellybutton
and push it out with one big breath.
sit up, rest my chin on my shoulder,
and examine myself from a new angle.
threads from my old towel dangle off the curtain rod
and my absent roommates' shampoos and razors
line the edge of the tub.
i lose track of time,
bathing here amongst words and scratchy trumpet sounds,
and i don't know if it will be dark
or light
when i open the bathroom door.

july 21 (2011)
today I came down by the garden at 2:39 p.m.
and hung my hammock in the spreading boughs
of some great tree of unknown species.
I told myself, one hour on this hot afternoon,
one hour of sitting in the hammock, reading and writing
and savoring the light through the summer leaves.
But now it's seven o'clock, and I'm still here.
The air is cooler now, the light diffuse.
Hao came by at four, and I helped him
check the honeybees, and then I did something
that would shock my mother:
I left him to clean up
and I guiltlessly marched back to my hammock,
where I thought very good thoughts
well worth an afternoon's time. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

At the airport, we met a guy who had come to the Big Island to work as a dolphin trainer at one of the swanky resorts. All of us were new to the island, and he invited us to come by sometime to swim with the dolphins. They were 'wild' dolphins, free to swim away, but they came back again and again to the manmade lagoon that dominated the grounds of the Hilton Waikoloa. Guests at the hotel could pay $200 to be allowed on the other side of the fence, to wade in the shallow pool and tentatively reach out to stroke the sides of the dolphins, which swirled around the people's legs like currents around a pier.

We planned to take our new friend up on this offer. Who could pass up a free dolphin encounter? This is the sort of thing that happens when you tell people that you're living on island. They're quick to offer you a cup of coffee, a ride somewhere, a hit from their joint.

A few days later, the friend-of-a-friend we were staying with squeezed us into her fuchsia Geo Tracker and drove us down a long, twisting road early in the morning, on her way to work at a beachside breakfast restaurant. From the top of the road, a thousand feet up, the blue plain of the sea spilled out to the curve of the horizon, dotted with whitecaps. We bumped along between coffee plants ripe with berries, wire fences, goats munching dry grass. Further down, ohia trees stretched over the road, branches reaching and twisting, and bright red hibiscus cloistered the path until we could no longer see the ocean, just this serpentine road between tropical gardens and rusty homesteads.

At the bottom, in a cement parking lot, Jen dropped us off and we waved her back up the long hill, back to the restaurant in downtown Kona for her breakfast shift. We were in Kealakekua Bay, hemmed in by steep cliffs and jagged lava flows. A few Hawaiian guys, shirtless, hung out in a clanky pickup; a woman nursed a baby in the doorway of an old van. They were all barefoot, relaxed, smoking, listening to scratchy music -- the picture of what island life might be if the Disney-esque luaus and tiki bars of the Hilton Waikoloa hadn't been built. They offered to rent us a kayak.

“No thanks,” Adam said. “We're just going to snorkel.”

“You go snorkeling way over there,” one of the guys said, pointing at a white statue across the bay – the Captain Cook monument. His Hawaiian accent was as thick as a Scottish brogue. “You kayak over, then snorkel, then come back.”

We believed him that the good snorkeling was to be found across the bay, but we were fit and had flippers and it was early in the morning, still, so we said we'd swim over.

Close to two miles later, we arrived utterly exhausted at the monument, just the same time as boat upon boat from the Kona resorts pulled into the water next to us. Big boats with barbeque grills and water slides, small jet boats, boats of all shapes and sizes. Out of these boats spilled countless numbers of people. Some of them were not good swimmers, apparently, so they wedged themselves into tubes and floated facedown in the water, spluttering in their snorkels. The snorkeling was indeed far better in this part of the bay than it had been on the long, aimless swim over. The shallows were filled with so many tropical fish it was like being in a cartoon, but you couldn't swim two yards without bumping into a tube or getting kicked by a flippered foot.

I raised my head. “Goddamn it,” I said.

Adam and I sat on the cement pier for a moment with one of the snorkeling guides, who was watching, bemused, as his guests fumbled and flopped in the water like fish on dry land. The quiet morning had become filled with their chatter, and the air floating atop the water was choked with gas and rumbling engines.

“Shall we?” Adam asked, and we both giant-stepped back into the sea, beelining it the mile-and-a-half back to the other side of the bay where the snorkeling wasn't as sweet but where the quiet Hawaiian morning was still unfolding at its own slow pace. It was agreed that instead of hugging the horseshoe curve of the shore, as we'd done on the way over, we'd book it straight across the deep bay. Flippers or no flippers, a 3.5-mile swim is an endeavor.

Facedown, nothing below us but sun-filled, wavering blue water and dreamy, faraway sand, we swam with purpose, determination. It became silent except for the hollow sound of our breath measured through the snorkel. Click. Clickity-click. Click.

Adam raised his head. “Did you hear that?” he asked. I nodded. “Dolphins?”

I shrugged, and we lowered our faces again and continued swimming. Click-click. Clickity-click-click.

Like bullets propelled from the water, a pod of Pacific spinner dolphins were catapulting themselves out of the ocean about 50 feet from us, out toward the open sea. They seemed to be playing, chasing each other like squirrels up a tree, showing off their acrobatic prowess for no reason other than that it was a glorious morning. We breathlessly swam toward them, each silently begging the dolphins not to swim away. They didn't. They met us halfway, leaping near us like I'd seen their northern brethren do alongside of a boat in Alaska. Instead of following the sides of a big boat, though, the dolphins were following us. They moved southeast as a pod, and we swam in their midst. There were moments when I was enveloped by the pod, dolphins on either side of me, dolphins below me, dolphins above, twisting, arching, spinning. I felt like a dolphin myself.

They stayed with us all the way across the bay. Occasionally, they'd disappear for a few moments and I'd stop swimming and look around for them, raise my head from the water. Sometimes Adam was gone too, and I bobbed alone in the warm, salty water. But always, out of the bottomless blue shadows, a lone gray body about the same size as my own would effortlessly push through the density of the water, undulating toward me. It was made for this, pure muscle, a perfect gymnast's body, lithe and agile and certain of itself.

They came so close as to brush against us, but The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association strictly warns that “the natural curiosity of wild dolphins should never be misinterpreted as 'friendly' behavior in which they are purposefully seeking out human attention.

Dolphins may approach people in the wild because they are naturally curious and may investigate unfamiliar objects in their habitat, but this is not safe for humans or the dolphins,” it goes on to say. “The dolphins' natural behaviors are being disturbed when they abandon them to seek out humans.

When people swim with resting wild spinner dolphins, the dolphins may be drawn out of their resting state to investigate the swimmers. This may be a change in behavior which may constitute 'harassment' under the Federal law that protects them and other marine mammals.”

I understand that my species can be a thick-headed bunch requiring explicit instructions, and I know marine mammals need protection. But I'm reminded of an interview with Joel Salatin that I just read about his book, Everything I Want to Do is Illegal. I'm all for environmental regulations, but the accusatory tone from this, our governing body meant to protect marine life, makes me indignant. I'm no dolphin harasser, and dolphins don't live in a world devoid of human interaction. Humans shouldn't live in a world devoid of dolphin interaction either. Doesn't understanding lead to protection? Doesn't an intimate experience lead to reverence? The site actually condones encounters with trained dolphins at a tourist attraction. When did we fuck up so badly that the only way we an hope to protect wildness is to avoid it at all costs or to put it in a resort? It's dispiriting that such a simple, extraordinary act could be turned so ugly by people with only the best of intentions. 

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