Vandals and Veggies; Pesticides and Parkinson’s

I am often asked whether we have a vegetable garden.  We don’t.  Our garden is largely perennial flowers with a few annuals interspersed here and there for colour, and a few plants ‘out of our climatic zone’ which we treat as annuals i.e., they either die with the frost or we dig up the tubers to store until the following spring.  A few kale are thriving presently because I had an impulse buy at the garden centre when I bought a selection for one of our daughters.

For several years, early in the existence of our current garden, we did have a few tomato plants but they did not thrive in partial shade and we didn’t deem them worthy to supplant more colourful masses of perennial flowers in the borders that were closer to full sun.  And I never seemed to find that perfect, sweet beefsteak tomato that I so fondly remember from my youth.  Or perhaps the slugs found it before I could get my hands on it?  The growing season always seemed to be too something – too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry – and the tomatoes grew too fast and split, or too slow and were little dry tasteless lumps.  In any case, I have the utmost admiration for those of you who have told me that you grow the most beautiful, “to die for” sweet tomatoes.  I just hope that I am not dying from them. (Much more on this thought later.)

Still, I have become increasingly intrigued by this question of why we have no vegetable garden, especially when many others we know are engaging in significant and well thought out projects of sustainable and organic produce gardening.  And my sister and husband in Saskatchewan have always had a substantial vegetable garden that was integral to their farm’s economic base i.e., they grew their own food – remarkable eh?   Their children in turn recognize the importance of such agricultural pursuits and assist with the garden on the home farm.  Vegetable gardens have been a way of life for generations on farms and in rural communities.  Why did I not carry this tradition into my urban existence?

As usual, I began my investigation into such questions by rummaging around in my memory banks for historical antecedents that might provide answers.  I had already been rummaging around in that murkiness anyway for clues as to why I now march unsteadily through life with Parkinson’s disease.  So it seems only natural to expand the scope a little. I have to say that I am a little surprised at what I am uncovering and it may take some time to assess, analyze and ferret out conclusions or patterns from my ever-diminishing memory banks.  This is a long way of saying that my thoughts will undoubtedly be spread out over many blog posts.  I apologize to those who are impatient and like to flip to the end of books to reveal the ending avoiding nuances in the plot.  And my apologies, of course, to those whose idea of a plot is being able to tweet an idea in exactly 140 characters.  They likely have already left the building.

For those who are remain, my musings on Parkinson’s and gardening will stretch far into the future – as I hope will my ability to engage in such activity.  While many people do claim to believe in the supernatural, I doubt very much that I will be communicating via Ouija board from the verdant and abundant Great Beyond, free from bindweed and ergot.  The best I will be able to do is to leave wisps of memories through which, it is my fondest hope, I will be remembered in the same manner that I am remembering those in my past – if that makes any sense.  In the meantime, I will just continue to throw my memories (and attendant feelings) about with reckless abandon as I wade (with the help of Google, I won’t lie here) through gazillions of megabytes of information.

In earlier posts I outlined our family’s lineage and passion for horticulture and perennial gardens.  While all of this is true, and there is much more to tell, I have neglected to admit to the details of a family which was also focused on the husbandry of vegetables and fruit as produce for use and sale.  I haven’t lied about anything. I just haven’t told you a whole lot of stuff that still needs to be told.  Also, I have discovered that it takes time to recall, tell and analyze the stories of a lifetime. In fact, if one did this precisely, it would take a lifetime plus the extra time required to review the “director’s commentary” so to speak.  I don’t know about you but I don’t have that much time so I shall endeavour to cut a few corners without, I hope, cheapening the product.

The fact of the matter is that our family always had substantial vegetable gardens.  In the village where we grew up (Altamont, Manitoba) we had a sizeable garden on the north side our house where we grew potatoes, corn, peas, carrots, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, egg plant [which we did not really know how to cook in those days (1950s,) and no one called it “Aubergine,”] and always an experiment or two e.g., celery, which weren’t always successful.  The celery experiment wasn’t.  The one concession to flowers in that garden was a row of snapdragons planted along the front fence.  It entertained small children, girls and women all summer long as they pinched open the flowers’ yawning jaws and poked a finger gingerly inside with some merriment.  Boys and men deemed snapdragons to be not manly and instead did such things as kick puffball fungus (Calvatia gigantean) in the pastures for fun, spraying great clouds of spores.  And, in those days, we certainly never entertained any notion that this fungus could add an earthy, nutty flavour to fare on the dinner table.

A smaller flower garden on the south side of the house behind the rickety old garage was home to delphiniums, peonies, poppies as well as hollyhocks.  The hollyhocks, really a biennial plant, seemed to thrive in the scrabble of stoney soil and summer heat against the house.  These conditions produced a glorious row of beauty year after year.  How I envy those hollyhocks today!  Every year I make a valiant, but unsuccessful, attempt to reproduce the hollyhocks of my youth.  Thankfully, I have a lover, an artist, who has immortalized them for me on canvas.  I also covet the delphiniums but have been unsuccessful in our attempts to have them grace our spaces.  Other members of my immediate family can, and do, grow both hollyhocks and delphiniums, so the failure here is a “me” thing and not a generalized family trait.  I do so hope that it is the same for Parkinson’s disease.

 Anne F. Marshall "Hollyhocks"

Anne F. Marshall “Hollyhocks”

A second vegetable garden was located behind the store that my father owned and ran for many years.  The store was the Post Office, the barbershop, a small confectionery and magazine stand, the bus depot, the hub for my father’s small Rawleigh products distribution business, and the office from which my father sold Wawanesa Insurance policies on vehicles, homes, and crops to residents of Altamont and district.  Each of these short occupational identifiers contains many vignettes that I know will float to the surface in subsequent posts to this blog.  My mother worked in the Post Office for many years as my father was “on the road” peddling Rawleigh brand products ranging from bag balm to “Kool Aid” and pie filling.

If you were to apply a class analysis to our situation, you would say we were “petite bourgeois” or “middle class.”  The fact of the matter is that the vegetable gardens probably were the only thing that lifted our existence out of poverty for most of my childhood life.  In our home we had no running water and no sanitation.  We had a well that was located under our basement stairs and we used a hand pump at the top of the stairs from which we drank and filled our washbasin or pots to be heated on the stove.  We did have electricity so no wood stove in the kitchen.  Periodically, the well was cleaned to rid it of worms, and salamanders.  Our toilet was a “honey bucket” in the basement that I had the pleasure of emptying when I grew old enough (about 10).  It was dumped into a pit at the farthest edge of our property away from the house – a place where, my father believed, the water table and an underground stream did not flow towards our well but away from it.  A coal-burning furnace (initially burning bituminous and later adapted to anthracite) in the basement provided heat for the household.  An electric furnace later replaced it, mercifully.

Don’t get me wrong; I am not trying to give the impression that we lived in squalor.  We didn’t.  While it wasn’t an easy existence, our gardens and an orchard on my grandparent’s farm, contributed greatly to our economic base.  A gendered division of labour existed with my father tending the gardens and my mother working in the kitchen canning, blanching, and freezing produce.  It was hard work and I remember my mother hating some parts of it – especially working late into the evening over a hot stove covered with steaming pots.

My parents struggled to pull our family out of the worst parts of that existence.  Ironically, in the end, they accomplished that by throwing off the yoke of this so-called petite bourgeois existence to join the working class when my father retrained as a stationery engineer.  One might say we were truly “proletarianized” in Marxist terms; or lost some status in Weberian [Max Weber] terms; or alternatively perhaps, the increased income moved us a few rungs up on the ladder of social mobility according to Canadian sociologist John Porter.  This has always left me in a bit of a quandary.  Did we succeed or fail?  In any case, this story of class change will be the subject of a future bog post, one not yet written – at least not outside of my mind.

But as I was saying, the gardens continued behind this primitive conception of the urban mall – the Post Office.  Here we grew potatoes, rows and rows of them, and asparagus! Long rows of asparagus!  In my small village, very few people knew about this culinary delight and fewer still grew it purposefully.  Those who did revelled in its beauty through their taste buds.  At the most tender opportunity, my dad would cut the young spears with his pocket knife and they would be served up slathered with pepper and butter, a white sauce, or a cheese sauce.  I know, I know…. my mother was never a great cook, but this was about as good as it could get.  As a young lad I thoroughly enjoyed asparagus and continue to do so to this very day, although usually without the sauces.  Once the spears began to be too woody (about the time they put them out in the stores where I shop today) dad would let the plants grow to create a great long, green hedge of feathers and seeds.  Asparagus eating was over for another year.

Altamont Post Office 2014  Photo: C. Baumann

Former Altamont Post Office, 2014                                                            Photo: C. Baumann

Two large patches of rhubarb (one located disturbingly close to the “honey bucket” pit) provided us with rhubarb pies, crumble, and sauce for a good month or more in the spring before their stalks grew woody and became more bitter than tart.  Of course, rhubarb provided handy hats for children and we ran about the lawn with the inverted leaves on our heads, stalks sticking upward like giant antennae receiving signals from faraway galaxies – signals that caused our legs to run and jump in the joyous abandonment of a Celtic ritual, halted only when some child fell and cried.  Every house on the prairies had a patch of rhubarb.  Old homesteads in Manitoba, houses and families long departed, are usually marked by three things: a foundation where the original house stood providing shelter from unbearably cold winters; a patch of common day lilies or “ditch lilies” providing food for the eye in July, “brightening the place up a little”; and rhubarb, providing the perfect blend of tart and sweet in the form of a pie or crumble which, I swear, kept marriages and families together when under other circumstances, they would have crumbled.

In addition to these gardens, we always seemed to receive a share of a large crop of potatoes that spent the summer multiplying in a field at my grandfather’s farm.  On a crisp day in the fall, dad and our family, and two or three of his brothers and their families would gather at the farm to harvest the potatoes which had been somewhat gently turned out of the soil with a cultivator drawn by a tractor (and in the early days, a horse.)  All kids scattered out across the rows to toss potatoes, large and small, into “gunny sacks” or burlap bags.  The bags were then hoisted onto a hay rack drawn through the field by a horse with my Uncle Cecil at the reins.

As an aside, I recall two horses at the farm – one was a broken down racehorse that we children were never allowed to ride.  It was skittish and danced with anticipation when it was being prepared for a ride.  I only ever saw Uncle Cecil ride that horse and, broken down or not, it seemed to me that it could still fly like the wind.  The other horse was a sturdy plow horse – probably a Clydesdale named Major, I think.  I have observed that every farm with a plow horse of Clydesdale (particularly,) Belgian, or Percheron blood has, or had, at least one horse, and probably more, named Major.  In any case, we were allowed to ride Major and often did take him down into the orchard where he would spend most of his time reaching for apples, while we wrenched the reins trying to get him to go somewhere without apples.  Any modern day horse person (of any level of expertise) will cringe at the thought, but we didn’t know what we didn’t know, if you know what I mean. We had a hell of a good time.

But the vegetable gardens of my youth were not always fun and joy.  The fields did not require much hand weeding and other maintenance but the town gardens certainly did. We were often sent into the garden to weed every inch of soil that was not inhabited by productive foliage.  I remember having to hill the potatoes, a concept I grasped very early in life, as I was wielding a hoe about three feet longer than I was tall.  Perhaps, my skills with a hockey stick were initiated by this activity – although I am pretty sure that no one ever described my stick handling abilities as “like hoeing potatoes,” thank goodness.

Pernicious flora was not the only threats in the gardens.  Fauna played their nasty roles as well.  Potato bugs were common and I recall going up and down the rows, looking under potato leaves where those little black and yellow striped insects (Colorado potato bugs) would be munching away happily.  We had to pick them off with our fingers and put them in a tin can.  I am not sure what exactly happened to them after that, but I think they were doused with gasoline and set on fire, or sometimes doused with soapy water, a process that I deemed to be preferable but no less lethal.  As well, we were expected to crush with our fingers any masses of eggs we discovered under the leaves – a particularly squeamish duty but nevertheless one to which I became enured quickly.

Colorado Potato Beetle.   Photo by Z.

Colorado Potato Beetle.                                                                             Photo by Z.

Cutworms were also a problem and we dug around the base of the young plants to unearth the curled up larvae and place them in the can for disposal.  Our failure to tend to these duties properly became very evident in a day or so when the leaves would be reduced to stems or the plant was laying on the ground from cutworm damage.  These insects also attacked tomato, pepper and eggplants but we had far fewer of those to attend.

Presently, I understand that cutworms are a significant pest for Canola (rapeseed) crops.  Canola was not a big cash crop in my youth but it seems that the cutworms were clearly there, waiting for better times.  Chemical control for cutworms is made more difficult because of their nocturnal feeding habits and laying under the surface during the day. Insecticides need to make contact with the pest in order to be effective.  In addition, cutworms do not feed during molting making it difficult to time chemical application.   Consequently, I am uncertain as to whether insecticides were used extensively for cutworm control during my youth.  There are other non-chemical means of cutworm management e.g., summerfallowing and delayed seeding – and, of course, sending children into the garden to “harvest” them.

Our vegetable gardens were augmented by many kinds of fruit grown in the orchard and berry patches on my grandparents’ farm.  Baskets of apples (eating, baking, crab, jelly,) strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, “muskmelon” [what we call cantaloupe today,] not only reached our table but were sold to others in the community.  “You pick it” farms were not yet in vogue.  I was often pressed into service to assist my grandmother and my cousins to pick the ripe fruit which was sold by word of mouth to the first callers – some stopping by the farm “on spec” and others calling on the party line telephone which hung on the wall like the future museum piece it was to become, and jangled out the correct number of long and short rings.  My grandfather experimented with many fruits and did develop a type of apricot that was hardy enough to produce fruit in the short Manitoba growing season.  I remember savouring its somewhat foreign (to me at least) juicy flesh.

I will return to stories of the orchard in future posts.  They surface too often in my memories to remain hidden for long.  But for now, suffice it to say, that I am pretty certain that these orchards did not produce fruit that was “organically grown.”  But again, I do not have firm evidence of the type or extent of chemical use, so any possible impact on my life or that of others cannot be stated or even alleged.

In other posts, I have contemplated the environmental antecedents for my Parkinson’s.  I am not an environmental research scientist, and I have no conclusive evidence of environmental factors in my own case.  I was far too young to keep records of any kind, never mind accurate records, or to make observations, which would stand the test of scientific methodological rigour.  However, one has to wonder whether there is truth in oral history as much as in scientific data gathering.  These reflections always make me return to the pesticides (insecticides) in common use during my childhood.  DDT always jumps to mind.

Interestingly, a German student, Othmar Zeidler, first synthesized DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in a purely scientific experiment in 1874.  But Zeidler had no idea of its commercial potential and it was not until 1939 when chemist, Dr. Paul Herman Mûller, an employee of the dye-manufacturing firm of J. R. Geigy, S.A of Basel, produced it for commercial use.  DDT was used extensively in controlling Colorado potato beetles before it was used for a whole host of other applications.  I know that by the late 1950s (I was born in 1949) my father was applying “potato dust” to control those self-same Colorado potato beetles.  Was it DDT? I have no conclusive evidence that it was but in all likelihood it was used at some point.  Oh, if my father were still alive, the questions I would ask him.  His passing predated my diagnosis with Parkinson’s and these questions were not as important to me then as they are now.

By the late 1950s another pesticide Carbaryl (1-naphthyl methylcarbamate) was developed by Union Carbide and touted as a broad-spectrum insecticide.  It was sold to American farmers under the chemical name Sevin and is still available today to kill a wide variety of insects.  Initially, it was touted as having few after effects and little residue.  As a kid in the 1960s I am pretty sure that I remember my Dad using Sevin dust on his potatoes and tomatoes.  It has been described as a pesticide and a neurotoxin “which in plain English means that they act on the nervous system of the insect [and humans presumably?].  In insects they scramble nerve impulses causing neurological misfires and ending in paralysis and death.”

If I had to describe my own experience with Parkinson’s and Dystonia, the words “neurological misfires and scrambled nerve impulses” would not be far from my mind. God, I may have to become a chemical engineer and an environmental scientist to sort out my own disease.

Altamont, Manitoba 1985  Photo: United Grain Growers

Altamont, Manitoba 1985                                                       Photo: United Grain Growers

As I write this post, I have some fleeting images of a particular episode in the garden – not one of our family’s gardens but some other gardens around the village.  I could not have been more than five or six years of age.  [It seems that in these last few posts I am regressing into childhood memories in search of … something … I am not sure what.] In any case, I had an accomplice – let’s call him “Z” [not his real initial] in order to protect the guilty, for he was surely guilty, as was I.

Gardens in Altamont hardly ever had fences around them, and when they did, they were often in poor repair and offered no resistance or barrier to anyone who wanted to to gain entry.  Such was the case with Mrs. X’s garden, and I believe it was also the case with Mr. X’s garden.  Mrs. X and Mr. X had the same name but were not married.  They may have been related but I do not believe that any familial relationship was entered into evidence at the time and therefore it is likely irrelevant to the outcome of this case.  While I am certain that Mrs. X and Mr. X are quite dead, and that the statute of limitations has long run out on the commission of any crime(s),  I have disguised the names of the victims in order to protect myself from any litigation and/or charges from their heirs and/or successors, should they still seek damages or allege slander.

The evidence placed before a panel of two judges (my father and Z’s father) was that a redheaded vandal and an accomplice were spotted wreaking havoc in at least two gardens, and possibly more, at various locations around the community.  The redhead and accomplice were observed pulling various vegetation (carrots, peas, corn,  cucumbers and potatoes in particular) up by the roots and were frolicking about the garden waving and throwing both vegetation and produce willy-nilly.  As I recall, no bite marks were entered into evidence and it did not appear that the perpetrators consumed any carrots, peas, corn, cucumbers or potatoes.  Shelled pea pods were indeed found on the ground near the legumes but that was not unusual in any garden in the community as everyone ate fresh peas right out of the pod.

My defense of “being under the influence” and “just having a good time” must have fallen on deaf ears. I also protested that no one identified me by name but only referred to the alleged perpetrator as “that redheaded boy.”  I was adamant that just because I was the only redheaded boy of age 5 or 6 in the village did not mean that one from a neighboring town or environs did not sneak into our village intent on destroying gardens, and in the process besmirching my good reputation.  It seems this line of defense was not persuasive.

Perhaps, if I had a better lawyer, I might have been able to plea bargain.   Maybe Z and I should have reflected on the honesty of George Washington and professed boldly that we could not tell a lie and that we did indeed rip through Mrs. X’s and Mr. X’s gardens like little lethal tornadoes (certainly a grade up from dust devil) wreaking havoc among the fall harvest.

But, as it turns out, Z and I did not stand a chance.  The evidence mounted against us at each turn.  They had the dirt on us so to speak.  The potatoes had eyes and the corn had ears.  They saw, they heard and someone told.  (I personally think it was the tomatoes who heard it through the grape tomato vine – okay, okay, these bad puns don’t help my case either.)

To make matters worse, it seems the two perpetrators decided that it was such a nice warm day, and if one was going to frolic, one might as well frolic in the manner that true frolicking was meant to be done.  So we doffed several items of clothing that were subsequently found at the first garden (Mrs. X’s) and one of the principal scenes of the crime.  There is no evidence as to how we got to the second garden, almost all the way across the village, without calls being made to the morality squad (our mothers.)  I also have no evidence that these ragamuffins doffed all of their clothing but one might assume that if the punishment is commensurate with the crime that at least one of us met the criterion of being “indecent.”

So, it was determined that Z and I were two peas in a pod, and found guilty with no right to appeal.  Sentencing was to be carried out in accordance with local custom where parents both determined and meted out the punishment.

I am about to say something now that is not easily understood in this age of sensitive parenting.  It certainly is not meant to vilify or diminish my father in any way (especially in the eyes of my immediate and extended family) or to approve of corporal punishment.  I loved my father dearly for reasons most will never know, even though we disagreed on many things over the course of the years we spent on this planet together.  He was my earliest and best role model teaching me values and principles I hold dear to this day, and which have guided me almost without fail to good decisions throughout my life.  I accept responsibility for any decisions that have failed to meet the standard, inasmuch as I deviated of my own accord from those principles.  But some, when they read the following paragraph, will jump to inaccurate conclusions.  Sometimes, you have to live a lifetime to be able to calculate the end product of that lifetime.  Don’t be too quick to judge.

My father was a barber (among many other occupations as you heard earlier) and when I stepped out of bounds too seriously, I received a few smacks across my behind (always clothed) with the strap he used to sharpen his razors – firmly embedded in my mind as the “razor strop.”  This was one of those occasions.  Z was “grounded” – whatever that meant for a 6 year old – and he was tied to the kitchen table for a few hours “to each him a lesson.”  I recall at the time that I thought that action was more barbaric than the few smacks of the strap on my behind after I received a very stern lecture on the value of property and the importance of gardens for sustenance and survival.  My father had a way of ensuring there was always a lesson to be learned – from the behaviour that spawned the punishment – if not from the punishment itself.   You can know of the basic laws of physics but if you don’t understand them, it will be a painful life.  [Newton’s third law of motion: In a system where no external forces are present, every action force is always opposed by an equal and opposite reaction force.]  Sometimes, such laws are parallels for understanding social behaviour.

So what am I to understand from my explorations of the murky depths of the cognitive reaches of my already dopamine deficient brain?

(1) We do not have a veggie garden and I really don’t understand why not.  Sorry.  The familial history and socialization to vegetable gardening was certainly present throughout my youth.  Perhaps, the fact that I would have much rather been playing hockey, baseball or any other sport interfered with the maturation of such ideas.  Leaving home when I was 16 to pursue some of those goals undoubtedly caused any thoughts of vegetable gardens to be suppressed.  These are all areas which I have not explored in this post and won’t as they are too complex and, remarkably, too sensitive even these 50 years later to lay bare at this time.   That time will come in due course.

(2) Perhaps I have a subliminal chemical addiction to vegetables carrying insecticides that attack my neurological system.  This addiction may have clouded my judgment such that I deny the purity of environmentally sustainable market garden crops and blindly rely on corporate farming practices to look out for the well being of consumers i.e., corporate farming can provide cheap, accessible food eliminating the need for family or community gardens.  If the phrase “sheer folly” were not already coined, surely it would have to be in order to describe these views.

(3) There do seem to be some other potentially mitigating environmental factors in my life re: Parkinson’s, including possible contamination of ground water from sewage [In a previous blog I mentioned my father’s concern about arsenic levels] and possible effects from the coal burning furnaces and the coal stored in our basement.  To be fair, I have never read anywhere that coal has any association with Parkinson’s, but you never know.

(4) And lastly, my regression into the past led me to that place where I found myself frolicking nearly naked through a cloud of insecticide infusing my neurological system with the potential to “misfold” the alpha-synuclein protein in such a manner as to promote “misfires and scrambled nerve impulses.”  Ah Parkinson’s, my constant companion and nemesis, may ultimately be the key to understanding my entire life.

After Note: “Z” and I were found guilty of vandalism and willful destruction of property but I cannot escape the feeling that we were not the only perpetrators in the veggie garden that fine day.  But there was not enough evidence to convict them, and they remain at large.

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