Paul Andersen: Where have all the pollinators gone?
Long time asking …
From tall, feathery branches overhead drifts a milky film of toxicity. It drips from the brim of my hard hat and leaves white spots on my slicker. It moistens my face and, despite goggles, mucks up my eyes.
I’m holding a high-pressure spray gun shooting this solution 80 feet into the crowns of silver maples. It’s my assigned job in the tree business where I’m working for Nels Johnson, a hard-bitten Swede who runs a lucrative tree trimming (and spraying) outfit on the North Shore of Chicago.
I’m told to spray these trees in suburban Chicago and not to worry if the chemical drips into my eyes or infiltrates the lawns where children play and pets frolic and families have barbecues, not to worry that it can seep into the ground water. I’m not issued a respirator.
I’m not told of the risks because nobody really knows what they are. Or they don’t want to grapple with yet another inconvenient factoid that might interfere with man’s constant assault on the natural world. I’m told to get that chemical toxin into the upper branches to stave off a larval infestation that’s making these trees shed their leaves prematurely.
So, I pour a vague measure of methoxychlor into a tank mounted on the truck, fill the rest of the tank with water from a fire hydrant, turn on the compressor, put on “protective” clothing, aim the nozzle at the treetops, squeeze the trigger of the spray gun, and feel the kick as the projectile poison streams into the environment.
I’m in my early 20s, and I am ignorant of what I’m doing. I have no idea how toxic this chemical is — methoxychlor — both on the environment and on my body. Years later, I muse that baldness was the outcome.
But it’s no laughing matter. On a website the other day I found the following: “Methoxychlor is a white crystalline solid which is often dissolved in a liquid carrier such as diesel oil. It can cause illness by inhalation and skin absorption.”
This was at a time when ignorance of chemistry and nature furnished the material for “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. Now, decades later, we wonder what has happened to all the pollinators necessary for harvests of vegetables and fruits, crucial links in the web of life.
At Colorado Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, perched on the flank of burned over Basalt Mountain, Jerome Osentowski reports a serious downturn in bees that make up domestic pollinators. Bee populations have plummeted on a grand scale, the assumed victims of chemical treatments to suburban landscapes like the ones I sprayed.
Wild pollinators also are in decline, Osentowski says. Without sufficient pollinators, the output of edible plants and fruits — the living crops that become food — is noticeably less. Pollinators are yet another canary in the coal mine of the biosphere revealing a breakdown in the chain of life that feeds us.
This isn’t a foreign attack or a threat from outer space. We are doing this to ourselves — willfully and with ego.
I recall, as a child growing up in suburban Chicago, how the mosquito abatement truck would slowly roll down our tree-shaded street spraying a cloud of poison mist that drifted wherever the wind would take it.
We neighborhood kids found sport in running after the truck, breathing god knows what into our young, delicate lungs while our parents sat blithely sipping highballs screened in from dread insects on the back porch.
Could these widely broadcast toxins be at all linked the cancers and tumors that medical science strives to eradicate from the population in general?
Did Rachel Carson sound a warning in 1962 that went unheeded in deference to the hubristic assurances of profiteering pesticide companies? Is it a form of mass suicide when society employs toxic chemistry to the biosphere on which we all depend for life?
One day we may finally trust empirical evidence — what we see with our own eyes — to convince ourselves that Industrial Man is playing the sorcerer’s apprentice in a game of unintended consequences where we’re all losers.
Where have all the pollinators gone? Long time asking …
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.