Enemy of the People

This post began as a gentle experiment at home to compare drinking water. It wasn’t a test of impurities but more like a whiskey- or tea-tasting party at which connoisseurs pronounce which sample has the best flavor.

We took samples from the kitchen faucet, two brands of bottled water, water filtered in a jug (Brita), and from the refrigerator (MWF filter, General Electric). They were equilibrated in identical vessels and reached the same temperature in an hour. We took turns to be the tester (observer) and the tested, offering samples in random order to avoid bias from knowing the source.  After the first round our roles were reversed, and then we repeated the experiment for two more rounds. It wasn’t long before we reached the same conclusion.

Bottled water along with refrigerator water tasted best. Water filtered in a jug tasted as bad, or possibly worse, than straight out of the faucet. In my opinion, none of them was as tasty as water drawn from our well in the Allegheny Mountains, which is raw, unchlorinated, and only passed through a simple string filter. It gives excellent results with chemical tests, as it ought from rain falling at high elevations onto limestone far from West Virginia’s mines.

The experiment changed our drinking habits. Brita filters are out. Refrigerator filters are in. I discourage bottles because they aren’t environmentally friendly, but can’t give them up completely. It’s hard to explain the difference in taste between filters because there are no comparative data from the same lab. Both manufacturers claim their filters remove heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic) as well as some drugs and man-made pollutants. Both of them say they reduce chlorine (GE removes “97%”), but I’m suspicious that Brita water tastes the same as from the faucet, perhaps implying chlorine or chlorinated compounds cause the difference. I also wonder if filtration removes beneficial solutes like fluoride along with chlorine/ chlorides, which would not be good news for kids’ teeth in the absence of fluoride supplements.

The experiment provoked a fit of musing. Water is something we take for granted because it is almost ubiquitous, covering 70% of the Earth’s surface, over 2% of which is fresh. We never expect kitchen faucets or showers will run dry.  And so I was stunned to hear at a public meeting a senior official from the Department of Environmental Quality lament the Potomac aquifer supplying water to James City County and neighboring countries will be exhausted by the middle of this century at current rates of depletion. Levels of fossil water have fallen by 200 feet and rain adds <<1 inch per year. How could I be ignorant of so important a fact, and why are local planners in a mad dash to grow this region’s population?

The prospect of coming water shortages is a paradox for a region of great rivers and wetlands where the annual rainfall approaches 40 inches. The audience was told we might switch to river water, recycle more water, and import water, but no option is rosy or cheap. Perhaps that’s why water is called the “new oil,” which I previously assumed meant only parched parts of the world. Water conservation is of course part of the solution, but whose supply will be drawn down first or inflated in price? Probably not those with the influence money buys. The papermill at West Point draws 20 million gallons per day from the aquifer, four times the volume used by the county and much of it for bleaching paper. Where it is drawn from source by industry and private well-owners it is free because billing applies only to water treatment and delivery.

The other half of the story is about the purity of what we drink. Why should citizens go to the trouble and expense of extra testing when we pay for what flows out of our faucets? Trust in the authorities to safeguard public health was misplaced in the past, and is being eroded again.

Up to Victorian times, cholera epidemics were blamed on bad air (“miasma”). Untreated human waste was dumped into the River Thames which flowed through London like a meandering sewer, and the air was so fetid in 1858 that it was called the “Great Stink.” Dr. John Snow died that year of a stroke an unsung hero at 45 years old. It wasn’t until 2013 that the medical journal that published his brief obituary issued an apology for ignoring this savior of public health, who is now called the first epidemiologist.

Four years earlier he deduced the source of a cholera epidemic was the community water pump on Broad Street in Soho and had its handle removed. His dot maps proved a connection between where people collected water and they fell ill, and he noticed men at a local brewery never contracted the disease because they drank beer from water that was boiled for malting. His theory was excoriated by leading medical men, so Snow was in that ever good company of scorned pioneers.

The playwright Ibsen probably knew the story when he penned The Enemy of the People nearly thirty years later. His fictitious Dr. Stockmann suspected the health spa in his town was contaminated, but its salubrious reputation filled the coffers. Officials denied it caused cholera outbreaks, and his former allies at the newspaper sided with the politicians. In standing alone he paid a heavy price.

These stories have modern resonances, although the new threats are from chemical pollution because bacterial contamination is cured by chlorination. A switch in the water supply exposed citizens in Flint MI to lead, carcinogens from coal ash spilled into wells in Belmont NC, and the oil MCHM overflowing into the Elk River contaminated the public water supply for Charleston WV.

When we experimented with water samples at home we were solely interested in taste, which is a comparatively trivial concern. Despite the ubiquity of this essence of life, the public has few choices for sourcing their drinking water and trust it doesn’t harbor invisible hazards. A faithful public watchdog, Dr. Stockmann was unjustly called an enemy of the people for casting doubt on his town’s supply, but it was those who tarred him who really deserved the label, along with anyone who calls for rolling back the Clean Water Act in the name of “jobs,” which I suspect is disingenuous cover for personal profit.

Next Post: A Cup of Tea


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Drain the Swamp

Drain the Swamp! It’s the refrain of a U.S. President who prefers time on the barren grass of golf courses to life’s abundance in natural wetland. Calling somewhere a swamp is never a compliment, and it’s not a pretty phrase as a  metaphor. It brings to mind a miasma, a malarious bog, a wasteland. That’s how George, the first president, regarded the Great Dismal Swamp when he surveyed it in the 1760s, and William Byrd II before him described it as a “miserable morass.” George was a land speculator who hoped that draining the swamp would create arable land to sell at a handsome profit as prime farmland in the growing colonies. He wasted his investment.

Lake Drummond

I was thinking about the Dismal as I prepared to return this week for a kayaking trip to the vast area straddling the Virginia-North Carolina border. It’s a swamp, not a marsh, because, while both are wetlands, the first is forested while marshes are vegetated with reeds, sedges or saltmarsh grasses. Both are very productive biologically, and plants put down roots into moist, deep humus to provide habitat for countless wildlife species. In George’s day, the Dismal Swamp provided food and shelter for over two hundred species of resident birds or migrants on the Atlantic flyway, and there were plenty of snakes, alligators, panthers, otters, and bears. Many of those species still thrive there today in a reduced but still vast area of over 100,000 acres centered around Lake Drummond in what is now protected as a National Wildlife Refuge. Birders and naturalists are swamp-huggers.

This is neither the first nor the last time this blogger will be a contrarian. I love swamps, not just for the animals and plants they harbor, but for their hydrology, resistance to erosion, and pure freshwater. I admit they are forbidding places in the summer when clouds of insects circle you hungrily for a bite, ticks crawl over your socks for a longer meal, and water moccasins with lily mouths slither around your waders in tea-colored water. But as tormentors’ tormentors they have been friends and allies to people who lived in the swamp.

After the Dismal was occupied by Native Americans, refugee slaves moved in after escaping from plantations. They were called maroons, from the Spanish and French word marron meaning chestnut (brown), and lived on higher patches of land called hummocks deep in the swamp where they hid from bounty hunters who dreaded leaving the main tracks. After Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a story about the former slave Dred in the Dismal Swamp who preached revolution and ventured outside to rescue enslaved African-Americans. Life as free men and women was a happier existence in the bog than what they were used to.

Anyone who visits the Dismal goes knowingly with a definite purpose in mind. A young white man headed there in 1894 because of its dreary reputation and intent on never returning. Instead, he found a salvation and came out alive.

That was Robert Frost down on his luck and still unpublished. According to the latest biography by William & Mary Professor Henry Hart, he had presented a few days earlier a leather-bound collection of his poems to his sweetheart, Elinor White, but she shut the book and the door on him (there was a happy ending because they later married). Frost, like Tennyson, had a family history of mental illness and when he was jilted fell into a deep melancholy and left Boston in the dead of winter. He took a steamer from New York to Norfolk from where he plodded through the country for ten miles to the swamp only clad in light clothes and not even carrying a knapsack. He was rescued from throwing his life away by a chance meeting with a group of jolly boatmen carrying a jug of grog. It made all the difference. He hints at this dark episode in his life in Kitty Hawk, a long poem composed at the end of life.

Washington DC was never a swamp like the Dismal, and only had a tidal river coursing nearby. Trump’s metaphor doesn’t ring true, although we understand his meaning. His slogan to drain the swamp is also likely to ring hollow because there is more to love and cherish in those rich habitats that to loathe and cull. Like George, he will probably find swamps have allies and advocates, and are more resilient than he imagined.

Next Post: Tap water

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Tillage, Cover Crops and Soil

Every episode of an old TV series opened with people staring at an object streaking across the sky. One man called it a bird, another a plane, and finally a smart-ass proclaimed, “It’s Superman!” No one said it’s Clark Kent!

I was musing how differently we perceive the same thing. I imagine folk gazing at the uncultivated strip on our land saying it is an eyesore, others a haven for wildlife, and gardeners thinking it is a wasted opportunity to grow food. To my mind it was a chance to sow wildflowers, and I imagined the following summer a mosaic of blue cornflowers and yellow Rudbeckia with bees hovering overhead. So I asked a neighbor to plow the strip before I scattered seeds on the freshly turned dirt. I worked to create a nursery of beauty but an ugly bed of cudweed was born that blanketed the ground so no “virtuous” plant could penetrate. I now realize the compacted soil we turned exposed buried weed seeds to light and oxygen so they could germinate.

Dust storm in NM 1935 by Dorothy Lange. U.S. Farm Security Admin. Public domain

In the way that broken dreams can be instructive, I started to think afresh about plowed farm fields, how the neat rows of mounds and furrows from the hedgerow to the horizon appeal to my sympathy for geometry. Perhaps the Ohio farm agent Edward H. Faulkner loved the tidy appearance of fields left brown and vacant from winter to spring, but at some moment in his life the image jarred. Perhaps it was the memory of farms in the Mid-West and in Grapes of Wrath country further south where the topsoil was blown away in the Dustbowl that stirred him as a younger man. Maybe he pondered the benefits of leaving the land idle for which FDR’s New Deal compensated farmers with $2 an acre. I wonder if he cast back in his imagination to the lush native grasses of the original prairies that used to anchor the soil against storms and floods until they were plowed by settlers hungry for land who brought farm practices that had served their ancestors well in past centuries in Europe but were not such a good fit to prairieland.

Faulkner suspected soil erosion wasn’t so much caused by relentless forces of nature like climate hostility and grasshopper plagues as by deep plowing. Perhaps gentler tillage with a new tool or no turning of the soil would protect the land without diminishing the harvest. When he published the Plowman’s Folly in 1943 he was ridiculed, and like a good many other pioneers had to wait for his prescience to be honored.

Topsoil is a thin, fragile crust on the earth. Without soil and the fertility it harbors this would be a barren planet, so its care is a supreme responsibility. But as human populations shift from rural living to cities we seldom, if ever, think about it.

The USDA estimates we lose three tons of topsoil per acre annually, and at that rate we only have enough to support present agricultural practices for another sixty years (Scientific American, Dec 4, 2014). The public and environmental health costs of soil erosion are amounting to $45B every year. Of course, soil is regenerated naturally, but very slowly depending on the landscape and climate and at the oft-quoted average rate of one inch every 500-1,000 years. We can’t wait for nature to correct our errors and must work with her.

There were always reasons (if little scientific evidence) for deep plowing, but gradually no-till practices have caught on and swept into the organic farming movement. What Faulkner didn’t know is that soil has a much deeper structure than is visible in its “horizon.” Every handful contains immense tangles of almost microscopic fungal hyphae that build pipelines around and even inside crop roots for a relationship that benefit both (The Progressive Farmer Feb 2017). By disrupting and burying the network, plowing delays its regeneration.

Sowing a cover crop to clothe the land between harvest-time and spring also helps to reduce erosion, but offers other important benefits. Annual clover and rye grass sown among stubble residues provide soil anchorage, extra nitrogen from root nodules, conservation of moisture, and even affects the microclimate. In the south of France researchers found that by increasing infra-red radiation cover crops keep local temperatures cooler by up to 2° C. on hot days, despite the countervailing effect of reduced evaporation (PNAS 2014).

All-in-all, the farm revolution is helping to reduce soil loss, chemical fertilizers, weeds, and tractor pollution. This started me thinking about my garden, for aren’t gardeners little farmers mimicking agriculture, and isn’t the garden fork a substitute for a plow? My experiment with plowing had been a failure, but it jolted me into letting land be. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and I didn’t need more convincing to retire from digging.

My cover crop, February 2017

The experiment is still underway. Last fall the raised beds were given a shower of compost over crop residues, and without breaking soil structure I poked drainage holes with a rebar before sowing a cover crop. In previous years after leaving the soil naked all winter it quickly hosted a bed of weeds, but this year the clover and rye grew so thickly they blocked weedlings completely. I mean completely! By February I was ready to kill them off under a black tarp and dig the green manure lightly into the soil after it turned yellow before planting vegetables. The proof will be weighed in June and July, and in pounds of tomatoes and beans instead of tons of corn and soybean. An experiment is like a day at the races, because you can’t count on winning. Gardeners are hardy types like farmers because they live hopefully and consign the history of bad harvests and outdoor labor to some dark cave of the mind.

Next Post: Is the Dismal Swamp still Great?


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Rabid Groundhog Attack


If you started to read this post because the title promised the sort of droll tale you expect from John Cleese or Stephen Fry I’m sorry to disappoint you! It’s a story about a gentle dog walk that turned into a rabid animal attack.

You might ask how I knew it was rabid. Was it tested for the rabies virus? [No] Have I encountered a rabid animal before? [No] I only had symptoms to go on, as well as familiarity with normal groundhog behavior. They often visit our yard to check if the veggie garden is ready for a nocturnal raid, but whenever I encounter them they run, and always in the opposite direction. So, what happened this morning?

I let the two dogs off the leash in a large meadow bordering the historic area of Jamestown Island, which we visit most weeks of the year. While the dogs were scampering a hundred yards ahead I noticed a large ball of brown fur in the grass and wandered over to examine it. I assumed it was a dead animal that scavengers hadn’t found yet, because I passed two dozen black vultures gorging on the carcass of a road-kill deer thirty minutes earlier.

Groundhog ready to charge

When I was less than six feet away and bending over for a closer look at the body it suddenly unrolled and sprung to its feet in obvious fury, baring its incisors and making a strange gurgling sound. It was a large groundhog in a very bad way. Its coat was unkempt, not sleek from grooming, and its short tail looked like a chimney brush instead of a bushy duster. This groundhog had been fighting.

I expected it would run away but it ran at me, nipping at my loose trouser leg. It was crazy! When I stepped back it came again and again. I started to run until it flagged, and then stopped to take its photo with my cell phone from a cautious distance. It was a pathetic sight, and if there was a heavy object at hand I would have killed it humanely.

I hurried over to warn the ranger station, passing dozens of kids who had poured out of a bus to tour the historic area, but first I gathered and leashed the dogs. Had they encountered the beast I would be telling another story because one or more of our trio would have been bitten.

This first encounter with a symptomatic rabies victim will remind me in future to beware of mammals behaving uncharacteristically, and I mean any mammal because all are vulnerable to rabies.

Next Post: No-till and Cover-up

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Sounds like a rock group, but hellbenders are mute, cryptic, and uglier than any band! I imagine some American pioneer naming them after turning over a rock in a mountain stream and recoiling in horror at the sight of something looking like it crawled out of H***. But hellbenders are among nature’s innocents (despite their jaws) and, like the Elephant Man, they should draw our sympathy because we, too, would want to hide under a rock if we had the ugliest mugs in the world.

Credit: Pearson Scott Foresman (Public domain)

A hellbender’s body extends two to three feet behind its slimy head, sprouting two pairs of stumpy legs before reaching the tail. They live in rivers like the Greenbrier and Cheat in West Virginia that drain pristine water from the mountains and harbor the diet of crayfish (“crawdads”). Hellbenders are giant salamanders, and the Appalachian mountain chain is the redoubt of more of their species than anywhere else in the world, over seventy in all, mostly small, dainty, and colorful.

I have never found a Big Sal under a rock, but Nick and Tim grab one on their excursion to West Virginia in this video.  They are slippery characters that are best left alone like other protected species with dwindling numbers.

Elk River, WV. Hellbender homeland

Hellbenders like a quiet life, but their home stretches can quickly change temper after a storm, turning a gentle stream into a raging torrent that tosses slimy torsos against rocks, crushing and tearing their flesh. And yet deep skin wounds almost never go septic in salamanders because they evolved ways of repairing traumas and consequently live for 30 to 50 years, longer than almost every other animal in the forest except some large birds.

A family of small peptides called defensins help to protect them against infection by latching on before bacteria, fungi and viruses snuck into cells. We, too, have defensins for boosting our innate immunity by drinking our mother’s milk during the most vulnerable weeks of our young lives.

There are related peptides encoded in our genome, but they are shams because their pseudogenes have premature stop codons that produce truncated peptides that don’t work for us throughout life. Perhaps they were useful long ago, but we now depend on cells in the immune system to guard against microbes, and for the past eighty years have counted on the penicillin family when needed. I say “past” because overuse of these drugs is creating microbial resistance that could turn us back to the pre-antibiotic era. If defensins help to preserve salamanders in a turbulent environment perhaps we can synthesize analogous molecules as backups for penicillin.

These four-legged aquatic animals with a long tail look too alien to inform medical science, but their body plan and tissue architecture are not so foreign to our own. There is one huge, enviable difference. They have an amazing ability to regenerate amputated limbs that we lost way back in evolution along with the services of some defensins. If we could mimic their biology millions of patients could throw away prosthetic hands, arms and legs, and repair damaged internal organs by drawing on the regenerative potency that rests unbidden inside our bodies.

When part of a salamander’s body is lost a blastema forms at the site of injury containing stem cells and other cells that lose their specialized character as they ready themselves for a reconstruction job. Careful anatomical studies have shown that when limbs are regrown they become perfect copies of the originals. This process fails in us because of an absence of blastemas and scar tissue getting in the way.

But we are getting accustomed to surprises in biology, and there are grounds for hoping that the plasticity of cells can be harnessed one day for regenerating our bodies. If you see a salamander squatting in a glass tank in a lab you may think it is a scientist’s pet or a grotesque throw-back to the Cretaceous Era, but perhaps you are looking at the future, at something that will help to improve human lives, and revise your judgment of the beasts from Hell.

Next Post: Cover Crop and No Till

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