DIRECTIONS PART II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

DIRECTIONS PART II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

Prior to my last post, DIRECTIONS PART I: Stay werr you’re to, ‘til I comes werr you’re at, B’y!, which is the first in a planned series, it had been over four months between posts. My instinct, even though I wasn’t raised in a family with a strong religious tradition, is to confess my sins i.e., apologize for my tardiness and seek your forgiveness. However, as I was reflecting on what words would be suitably contrite, I realized that this same lax religious upbringing permits me to conclude not only that I have no obligation to confess but equally I have no reason to apologize. I have done nothing untoward. Rest assured that I say none of this out of any disrespect for you, dear reader.

In November 2016, I wrote a piece that is truthfully a “Last Post” in that it was my reportage on the Celebration of Life for John R. Mills, a man who warranted the many accolades that were thrown his way at the best wake I have ever attended.  I know that learned intellectuals and professionals studying death and dying within all types of societies have researched, interpreted, analyzed and written about the grieving process identifying its stages and concomitant behaviors of the mourners. For the last four months I have been trying to come to grips with the reality that the strikes of the hammer on the anvil were hailing the blacksmith and farrier, beloved by all, to come home.

John’s death affected me in ways that I did not anticipate. He and I shared some quite personal moments in the months (even years) before he left us – moments that gave me insights into his life and his person; moments that give me the strength to face my own future with Parkinson’s, a progressively degenerative neurological disease; moments that help me better understand my own person; and moments that bring calmness to my spiritual self. Most of those moments will remain private and confidential but there are one or two that I feel I can share.

Sometimes there is no ‘option’ in option

During the last months of John’s life, there were many decisions to be made, difficult decisions; decisions no man or woman should have to face. He had sage and respected advice from physicians, health professionals, family and friends so he did not face the decisions or their consequences alone. Still, the final burden was disproportionately his to bear.

What turbulence is created in your intellectual and spiritual self when too much ‘hard’ medical data competes unfairly with too little ‘real’ time?  Some are tempted to call this problem a “quandary,” a ”puzzle,” or a “dilemma” for which there is no correct answer. Others see it as a kind of cost – benefit analysis where the positives and negatives (upsides and downsides) are totaled and offset to inform the decision – making process. Characterizing the problem as having a binary answer (yes/no) disguises the fact that the options under consideration are most often ‘options’ in name only and each option could be equally unthinkable e.g., living longer with a medically assisted but vastly diminished quality of life or dying more immediately from the ravages of your disease on your body and mind.

Here lies W. C. Fields. I would rather be living in Philadelphia”

The language of “options” also implies that we have a say in the matter; that there is ‘free will’ and we can, not change the course of history but, choose the course of history. The heading above is the epitaph (several slightly different versions are often quoted) that W.C. Fields proposed for himself in an article in Vanity Fair (June 1925.) I guess if Fields had the final say he would be alive in Philadelphia rather than in a grave beneath a headstone in Glendale, California.  Wouldn’t we all?  More likely, he would still be in a grave but in Philadelphia rather than California.

I do not deny the existence of free will for many actions we take, or do not take, in the course of life, but does free will always exist for life and death actions/inactions? If free will does exist are we fortunate or are we fortunate if it doesn’t? If there is no higher power than you, then to whom are you accountable? What if you, as the highest power, do not wish to die but your body and spirit can no longer sustain life? What if, at the very end of life, at that moment when our Soul is to be released from its material casing, we have no choice? How does that happen; who makes that decision? What if we do not have a Soul? The list of questions is interminably long.

Living with the dying and dying with the living sucks, doesn’t it? Or does it suck only if dying has greater importance or gravitas than life? The problem is that ‘not dead’ means ‘alive’ and ‘not alive’ means ‘dead.’ In relational terms each condition should be equal; each dependent upon the other being not present. As I only know and experience “aliveness,” that is the only condition about which I can speak and it turns out that I don’t know very much about it at all.

On the positive side, I know nothing about “deadness” and I am not even certain I ever will. This is not to imply that I will live forever but that there may be no consciousness for me after death. It is all very confusing and is very much a “black hole” into which the secret code of life is absorbed after death, never to be relinquished. Perhaps, being prepared to live and to “not live” (rather than “to die”) is the best we can do.

“Tell me a story”

What could I possibly say to John that would be at all helpful? The mind often boggles at times like this but John took the lead and on two occasions he lifted one hand slightly off the hospital bed to signal that he wanted to “say” something and although he was unable to speak without great effort, he signaled that everyone except me should leave. The first time was very private and personal and shall remain that way. The second time he wanted me to tell him a story. I had been sending John copies of my blog for quite some time and I knew that the stories resonated with his own experiences and that he appreciated the humour and context. So I stood by John’s bedside and spun a few stories that had been tumbling around in my brain but hadn’t yet made it into written and more polished form. Today, you are privy (pun intended, you’ll see) to some elements of those stories in a more organized form.

Nothing says Halloween like outhouses … and a potato?

I knew that John would appreciate the particular time period within which the stories are set as well as the many threads within the stories themselves. For me though, the significance of the stories lay in the telling and in the non-verbal responses they drew from John. In those brief few moments, I was thrilled that I was able to remind him of what it is like to be an eight year old boy – a boy who plugged Bob Lang’s sump pump hose with a potato on Halloween night, causing a minor flood in his basement which thankfully was unfinished and unfurnished.

I am sure those of you with sump pumps would like to take that boy and wring his neck, as water in the basement is not what any homeowner wants and a plugged drain pipe could overheat the sump pump motor and blow a fuse or trip a breaker. (See note 2) I suppose it could also start a fire if there was no thermal relay switch. My recollection is that the potato plug in Bob Lang’s sump pump hose caused only minor flooding. I heard no talk of fire or other damage.

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Who plugged the sump pump hose with a potato anyway? Photo: S. Marshall 2017

It is well known that boys over the age of nine, teenagers and immature adults look forward to playing the “trick or treat” game on Halloween night. The idea is simple; if a residence or business did not give you a treat then they could expect a trick to be played on them. Sometimes the older tricksters did not even give the “treat” part a chance; they just went directly to the trick. Tricks came in a wide variety of forms: soaping windows was quick and easy to do but slow and labourious to remove; throwing hay or straw bales on a roof top required the strength of young men; anything that wasn’t tied down and was smaller than a car got moved; but the most common trick was to tip over the outhouse. Almost every house in Altamont had at least one outhouse; likely a “two-holer” but there are many with only one hole. I remember seeing a three-hole outhouse on my grandparents’ farm when I was a kid. I thought it was hilariously funny but you never know, perhaps the number of holes is determined by the size of family … or some other social or economic variable. I am sure someone has done an analysis and with power of Google I could find out but this not the time to wander too far from the subject matter.

Cottage outhouse

A “one-holer” outhouse was common for a residence  Photo: S. Marshall

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A typical outhouse for a business with separate entrances for “Men” and “Ladies”   Photo: S. Marshall

Humour and Horror in the ”honey pit”?

Halloween is not all Hollywood, horror movies and Freddie Krueger. The horror of the “honey pit” predates the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and seems to have persisted over time. One recurring story is that a specific someone e.g., Ed Bulmer, Oz Jackson or Bob Hetherington, was in his outhouse when it was tipped over on its front, blocking the door. These images produced roars of laughter at each telling. Whether it is true or not is hardly the point. Strangely, I do not recall any women being named as someone, pants down, struggling to get out of an outhouse lying on its door in front of its “honey pit.” In fact, there are very few visual sightings of women entering or leaving the outhouses at any time and certainly none at Halloween no matter how strong the call of nature might be.

Sometimes the perpetrators got their comeuppance and one or more of those (no names will be provided here) tipping the outhouse inadvertently found himself (it was always a male) in the “honey pit,” having slipped during the deed. Even though I had been present at a few tipping events when I was young, I never witnessed such misfortunes – and it certainly never happened to me!  Still, it could not have been that hard for someone to nose out the truth after you have fallen into a pit of human excrement and piss, but perhaps like a cat that failed in its leap onto a precarious perch, you just preen for a second or two after falling and walk away nonchalantly as if nothing happened.

It is a safe bet that at least once in the last 130 years someone in Altamont was in the outhouse when it was tipped over and at least once a trickster did fall into the pit after giving the outhouse that one last mighty shove to break the centre of gravity.

The origins of Halloween go back thousands of years and bear resemblance to traditions of the Celtic harvest festivals. Interestingly, in the 1880s and 1890s many Irish immigrants passed through the Ottawa Valley (Merrickville, Carp) and other parts of southern Ontario (Lucan) on their way to settle in southern Manitoba around Musselborough which was founded in 1884 and later renamed Altamont. Undoubtedly, their Irish humour was fertile ground for tricks at Halloween and they relished the opportunity to regale one another with tales of forays on this night when the authorities turned a blind eye to minor infractions. It is not hard to see how stories of falling into the “honey pit” or of being in the outhouse when it was tipped over on its door, the only exit being over or through the foul smelling and disgusting looking pit, would become standard fare whenever they gathered.

I tend to think there is a kernel of truth in most stories that persist over time and the rumours associated with outhouse tipping are no exception. As if to prove this very point, the following entry in the book of memories for the 100th anniversary of the founding of Altamont was written 33 years ago and speaks to the general nature of these outhouse capers at Halloween.

“Halloween was always an exciting time in Altamont, especially in the days before in-door plumbing. It could be a dangerous time too. You had to be careful where you walked. More than one in–a-hurry, prankster found himself the victim of a fate worse than death, having fallen into an uncovered toilet hole.”

“Those outhouses must have been built well to survive the annual “pushing over.” Sometimes they were hauled out into the road and used to block traffic.”

“The most famous back-house in Altamont was also the most fortified. In fact, it still exists today. Bob Lang secured his one-holer with barbed wire. Most years he was successful in keeping his out-house at home.”

“Just when the boys were making some progress in getting his toilet over, old Bob would come running from his house waving his hockey-stick cane in the air. Everyone would scatter only to try again later.” ~ Allan Dawson in Memories of Altamont, 1984 -1994, compiled by the Altamont Centennial Committee.

Yes, Mr. Dawson identifies the same Bob Lang I referenced earlier in the sump pump potato plug incident. Bob seemed to be a target for many on Halloween. Perhaps, it was the challenge of his fortified outhouse and, appropriately enough, the danger of being ‘slashed’ by that hockey stick cane.

Memories of Altamont 1884 -1984 cover

Fire??!!

John was a great fan of stories that had action and he loved it when the characters were hit quite literally over the head as part of the story line. It goes almost without saying that when I was fully engaged in the stories of the outhouse tipping shenanigans, John was more animated and his eyes were visible under their closed lids. I am not sure what he enjoyed the most: the idea of a general assault on outhouses at Halloween; the tipping and dragging of outhouses onto the street to block traffic; the possibility of someone actually being in the outhouse at the critical moment when its centre of gravity was breached; the irony of a perpetrator falling into a cesspool of piss and shit; or the idea, which I heard more than once during the outhouse raids, “Let’s set fire to the fucker.”

Fire was no stranger to Altamont and I am researching a number of fires over the 130 years of Altamont’s existence. As my research is incomplete at this stage I cannot delve into those events too deeply but let’s consider the following questions: What if the Halloween tricksters did set the outhouse on fire? What if the idea caught fire, so to speak? Would there be a conflagration of “shitters” the likes of which the world has never known? Not likely, but even though Altamont was small, setting fire to one or more outhouses in the community would make a statement far beyond the usual Halloween “pranks.” Flaming outhouses are sure to hit the news – even though cell phones were not yet in widespread existence and video of such events would be difficult to find. Rest assured the concept of mens rea would be applied and charges would be laid.

Environment, outhouses and Parkinson’s

In the 1950s and 1960s small villages and unincorporated Local Urban Districts (LUDs) such as Altamont did not have public utilities such as water and sewer. Only a few houses had septic fields and the “water utility” was an electric pump drawing water from a well on the property. But in truth most houses had no electric pump; no running water; no flush toilet; no septic field; and the waterworks was an old creaky hand pump drawing water from a well directly below.

Most people had outhouses where they went to “do their business” or “honey pits” into which they emptied a “honey bucket” from the house, a task I was given when I was about 8 years old, once a day, every day after my sisters had gone to bed. I can still recall the weight of the honey bucket in my hands, stink trailing behind me as I walked through the kitchen and back porch out into the back yard – the air fresh and clean until I passed through. The honey pit was located at the northwest corner of our lot beside our rhubarb and as far as possible from our well but still only a distance of 10 – 12 meters. Cleverly disguised as a squat wooden square box, the honey pit sat there innocuously and surprisingly stench free with a padlock securing the trap door entrance on its top. I always fumbled with the lock and opened it with trepidation as it was usually after dark and there were no lights in that corner of the yard. I don’t know, maybe I expected a monster with extremely foul breath and dripping with soggy toilet paper and excrement to jump out the moment I opened the hatch! I think dad must have tossed in copious amounts of lime to cut the smell and reduce fly and pathogen problems, as I was always surprised that the smell didn’t knock me over and there were few flies when I opened the door

Drinking water and water for bathing was drawn from wells that were dug only a few meters from the outhouses and honey pits. So how far should an outhouse be from a well? I thought this should be an easy question to answer. Turns out that it is not. At the one extreme, some municipalities in Canada prohibit outhouses outright. At the other extreme, unorganized townships have no restrictions or regulations whatsoever … build your outhouse wherever you want – and better yet, don’t tell anyone even if you do build one. It is the best thing about unorganized townships, ‘don’t cha know’ (facetiousness is dripping here). Other people argue that a “few feet” is OK as long as the pit is above the water table. I agree that deep wells accessing  underground aquifers far from the surface pits of outhouses would be quite safe.

Surely, the juxtaposition of drinking water sources and the storage and disposal of human waste does matter and close proximity does not make for a healthy environment. When I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I wondered if sanitation issues and/or contaminated well water might be factors contributing to the development of Parkinson’s in an individual.

Well … what about the well?

The well in our house in Altamont was directly under the kitchen. It was a hole about five feet in diameter and about 15 feet deep. There was cribbing for the first five or six feet and the whole thing was covered by a large piece of 3/4 inch plywood forming a landing at the bottom of a set of stairs made from rough-hewn timber, leading to an unfinished basement. Occasionally my father would take the cover off to peer into the depths to determine the water table. About three feet to one side a separate hole about three feet deep housed an electric sump pump to keep the basement from flooding should the water table rise too high.

I have no idea how often a well should be cleaned if ever, or what should be used to clean it. I do recall one time my father cleaned our well. It happened one July when I was about 14 years old. It was a hot Saturday evening during haying season (it’s beginning to sound like a country and western song here) when I returned home from a long day of riding the hay rack behind a baler spitting out alfalfa bales in rapid succession. [Interestingly, the sway and rock of the hayrack across the field is not unlike the feeling that I currently experience with my Parkinson’s balance and peripheral neuropathy proprioception issues.]

I arrived home hot, sweaty and thirsty, thirsty, thirsty! I grabbed a tumbler out of the cupboard, went to our water pump in a small alcove just at the top of the stairs to the basement. I worked the pump handle up and down a few times to fill the tumbler with water that was not extremely cold but as cold as I was going to get. I tipped the tumbler up and let the water drain into my throat. About half way through the last gulp, a very big gulp I might add, I sensed that this glass of water was not all that it promised… or maybe it was more than it promised. I could feel something disturbing in my mouth. I suppressed the urge to swallow and I suppressed the urge to gag, although I don’t know how. Instead, I willed my self to spit the contents of my mouth out into the porcelain sink. A three to four inch long worm began wriggling across the slippery surface. I don’t know how I hadn’t spotted it before tipping the glass all the way to vertical but rest assured that I have pre-checked every glass of water I have ever had since then. It is something I will continue to do into the future. The worm in a glass of mezcal repels me and I can hardly look at it never mind have a sip!

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A word to the wise: always check the bottom half of your glass  Photo: S. Marshall

Of course, my mother was extremely distraught by my account of the worm in the drinking water. The very next day, dad and a neighbour took the cap off the well, pumped it dry and with a rope around his waist dad descended into the well with a brush and sponges. He scrubbed the walls and cleaned the intake on the pump. It seemed to make my mother much happier if nothing else.

I doubt that a worm or two in your well causes Parkinson’s but I do recall that dad was concerned about high levels of arsenic and other contaminants in well water in the area. Even so, I don’t remember our well water ever being tested although I do recall dinner table conversation that it should be. In the end analysis, I think we were too poor to pay the test fee plus the shipping cost to Winnipeg. Dad likely relied on the tests that others in the community had obtained as being indicative of the readings that our well would have. In any case, I don’t think the arsenic was much of a problem but I cannot say the same for the chemicals and/or metals the ground water may have contained, although studies are inconclusive as to the consequences.

We lived in an agricultural area and the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were times of intensive usage of pesticides on farms, and I know that our father used these same practices in our gardens. (See Note 3.) As always there is considerable difficulty in obtaining reliable data for pesticide usage and funding for research on the health impact of pesticides on the population is relatively scarce. Still, since 2003 seven provinces including Manitoba have passed legislation banning the use of pesticides for cosmetic (non-essential) use. Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are the holdouts. The definition of “cosmetic use” ranges from use on lawns only to use in all elements of landscaping. Most provinces have some exceptions.

Those initiatives and laws are all well and good but the 60 years between 1940 and 2000 were pretty freewheeling when it comes to pesticide usage. The current legislative bans and regulations come far too late for those of us in our 50s and 60s who are just now being diagnosed with Parkinson’s as we could have been exposed to the pesticide as many as 50 years ago. Indeed, it is much more likely that we were impacted by pesticide use than by the proximity of outhouses and honey pits to well water.

There is also a possibility that some metals, oil and petroleum products seeped into the ground from nearby industry. Whether it (whatever “it” is) ever reached the water table in our case I cannot say as the details were buried forever when our house and the industrial buildings were torn down and the area redeveloped.  In other words, none of these possibilities can be verified, no conclusions can be drawn and all speculation will remain just that, speculation.

I suppose that every Person with Parkinson’s (PwP) has asked two questions: what causes Parkinson’s disease and why me? Do you know that this year, 2017, is the two hundred year anniversary of Dr. James Parkinson’s famous work, An Essay on the Shaking Palsy, which established the disease as a medical condition named after Dr. Parkinson. After 200 years of study the question as to what causes Parkinson’s has yet to be answered.  Scientists are coming ever closer as they research proteins such as alpha-synuclein that misfold and form Lewy bodies that are present in the brains of all those with Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless there are gaps in the research indicating that perhaps they  are not isolating the precise genetic factor and protein or that the cause is more multifaceted than we care to believe e.g., other factors such as environmental exposures may be complicating or confounding features of the cause(s).

Is there a link between poor sanitation and Parkinson’s disease?

There are many references in the literature to the links between environmental factors and Parkinson’s disease. Could there be a link between poor sanitation and Parkinson’s disease?  I suppose that anything is possible given that a definitive cause of Parkinson’s has not been isolated, but it is not probable. I have not seen research reports showing a correlation between the presence of outhouses or “honey pits” and the incidence of Parkinson’s or other neurological diseases. I am certain that it is not desirable to have human waste “honey pits” in close proximity to wells providing drinking water as it increases the likelihood that insects can pass diseases back to the human population. Nevertheless, I don’t think such proximity was a contributor to my Parkinson’s.

Pesticides are a trigger

Researchers have long suspected a correlation between the incidence of Parkinson’s disease and the presence in the agricultural environment of pesticides. The authors of a newly released (April 2017) literature review and meta-analysis conclude

“ …there is now strong evidence that exposure to any pesticide involves a ≥50% increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease.” (Gunnarsson and Bodin, 2017)

Let’s be clear though, most research and considered academic writing on this matter is careful to highlight that environmental exposure to these toxins is not sufficient in and of itself to develop Parkinson’s. In order to develop Parkinson’s a person must already possess a genetic marker for Parkinson’s that is then triggered by the environmental factor. Neither exposure to toxins nor possessing the genetic marker is sufficient to result in Parkinson’s but together they may result in Parkinson’s. Not very convincing is it? But, on the other hand it is encouraging that we at least have some leads.

“In conclusion, this meta-analysis provides evidence that pesticide exposure is significantly associated with the risk of PD and alterations in genes involved in PD pathogenesis.” – Ahmed, H. et al. in Biomed Pharmacother. 2017 Apr 13;90:638-649.

“As a neurogenetecist, I’m prejudiced to say that people have a certain proclivity that resides at the genetic level which predisposes them to environmental insults—whether they be pesticides, well water, living in rural areas, or trauma, possibly.” – Northwestern University neuroscientist Teepu Siddique as cited in The Atlantic, “The Brain of a Fighter” by James Hamblin, June 2016

There is also research, although not as strong as the chemical toxin research, that supports the conclusion that well water with high levels of iron, mercury, manganese, aluminum and other by-products of industry are linked to the increase in incidence of Parkinson’s disease. These metals leach into the water table or enter underground streams and aquifers to be drawn on through wells and consumed by the population as drinking water.

Summary offence (misdemeanor) or indictable offence (felony)?

Before I forget, we do need to return to the sump pump potato plug case to tie up a few loose ends. One of those loose ends is the question of whether the perpetrators of Halloween pranks were “mischievous” or “rotten to the core?” I prefer to think mischievous, as it was a different time then, a different morality. Pranks were expected on Halloween. Still, is a potato stuck in the sump pump hose a prank of a different order than an outhouse tipped or moved into the street to block traffic i.e., was the potato incident an “indictable offence” (felony) and the outhouse tipping a mere “summary offence (misdemeanour)?” I have bracketed the terms “felony” and “misdemeanour” even though those terms have been abolished in the Canadian legal system because they still evoke an intuitive understanding of the relative severity of the offence. I have my own view and when I asked John for his opinion his face brightened a little and I knew that he had experience on both sides of this question and there was a discussion to be had, if only he had the strength and ability to talk. I like to think that we wouldn’t be far apart in our interpretation.

Bob Lang's house front view 1982

Bob Lang’s house (front view) Photo: S. Marshall 1982

It seems that Bob Lang spoke to the parents of a different young boy (let’s call him “H”) accusing “H” (wrongly) of the prank. In keeping with their values of respect for elders and discipline for their children, the parents believed Bob and punished “H” accordingly despite his wailing and vigourous protestations that he was not guilty.

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Does this look like a kid who would plug your sump pump hose?

At this point I could tell by some slight movements of John’s mouth muscles and the gentle squeezes from his hand in mine that he could identify with the first young lad who was in truth guilty not only of the potato caper itself, but also guilty of not confessing to the deed (a mischievousness but cowardly act of omission) after his friend (“H”) was wrongly accused and subsequently punished. I knew that John empathized with “H” who was wrongly accused – although I know also that John would find the fact that the wrong boy was punished to be tremendously funny especially if he (John) was the true guilty party.

Bob Lang's house back view 1982

Bob Lang’s house (rear view) where the sump pump hose was located. Photo: S. Marshall 1982

Straw bales burn better than outhouses

To my knowledge no one ever acted on the suggestion to set fire to the outhouses in Altamont at Halloween. However, I do recall that a number of straw bales were set on fire about a half-mile south of the village. It is a strong memory for me, not because I actually saw the bales blazing, but because an RCMP Constable later interviewed me as to my whereabouts on Halloween and whether I could say for certainty that I was nowhere near the burning bales. I was sitting in the driver’s side backseat of the RCMP cruiser while the Constable sat in the passenger side front seat with his clipboard (no computers on those days.) We were well away from others and thankfully well away from my father and his failing hearing – hearing that could be cured with faith-healer-like speed if the conversation was interesting enough.

A second Constable was rounding up a few other local lads to be interviewed in the search for the straw bale pyromaniac. I had no problem in convincing the Constable I was not in the vicinity of the fire … as I was busy sticking a potato in Bob Lang’s sump pump hose. The Constable laughed and said he had no report on such an incident and that I shouldn’t do that sort of thing.  At that moment I knew the policing arm of the state, rightly or wrongly, ranked a potato in a sump pump hose at Halloween to be similar in severity to outhouses tipped on their sides, stinking up the neighbourhood. i.e., they were summary offences at worst and forgivable on Halloween with no charges laid. Fire and arson, on the other hand, were clearly matters of a higher order – indictable offences –  and the RCMP were looking to lay charges.

The Constable dismissed me from the cruiser and called the next kid in line to jump into the rear seat. As fate would have it the next kid was “H,” the very same kid who was punished by his parents for the Bob Lang sump pump hose potato plug caper even though he was innocent. It is a good thing that ”H” did not know who was actually guilty of “his” crime and it seems that the Constable never mentioned it to him.  Perhaps “H” has been searching for the real potato prankster for the past 60 years?

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This kid probably plugged the sump pump hose. He looks like a hood to me!

I never heard another word about the potato plug in the sump pump hose caper or the straw bales which “spontaneously combusted” in Fraser’s field. The petty pyromaniac pranksters (if alliteration for effect can be overdone, this is probably an example) were never found. If there are any outhouses remaining (and I believe there are many,) they continue to be “at risk” each Halloween. On the other hand, the risk of a potato in the sump pump hose attack is relatively low.

Is mischievousness only a children’s thing?

On Halloween nights there are acts of commission and acts of omission which fly beneath the radar of the legal system because they meet a reduced community standard on Halloween. The more that these actions bump against the outer edges of that community standard, the more humourous it is until there is a breaking point. Remember how your mother admonished you to stop waving that sharp stick because you will take someone’s eye out? It is exactly like that; it was all very much fun until Tommy lost an eye.

John R. Mills was a man who loved stories where the action is on the edges of acceptable community standards and/or legality – and the subject matter didn’t have to be as serious as murder either.  He had a keen sense of small-scale mischievousness and that mischievousness fuelled his ability not only to maintain a boy’s view of the world but also to engage in adolescent behavior from time to time during his adult life. I sense that we shared this connection.

On the other hand, what if I read John’s non-verbal responses incorrectly? After all, as a young man he was a member of the mounted force of the Toronto constabulary and he was a superior horseman and rider all his life, winning cutting championships in Kentucky and Kansas. Perhaps he was imagining himself in the role of a mounted officer with the power of a trusty and fearless police horse snorting underneath him as he provided crowd control on Halloween night. In the end it matters not as John was not one-dimensional in any respect and I know he would have revelled equally in a detailed account of police horse vs prankster on Halloween.

A larger moral message?

As I looked at John’s face, eyes alert under the closed lids, a slight smile on his lips, I knew that I had transported him to a different place, free from the weight of medical evidence, medical procedures and medical consequences – all of which pointed to him becoming a medical and demographic statistic of the worst kind.

I sense that some of you may be looking for a more meaningful lesson in morality to emerge from these small town shenanigans and my telling of those stories to John. Sometimes in life there isn’t an obvious moral lesson. Sometimes, when the conditions of life warrant, it is just a matter that we, like John, deserve a few short moments away from the serious (sometimes life and death) decisions men and women have to make. We should be granted that respite.

I could end this post here except for the fact that the end is not here … for those who wish to argue over whether actus reus (the act) and mens rea (you meant the act to have the consequences it did) were both present in the potato plug sump pump case and that a “duty to act” was breached in the act of omission (not confessing) such that a crime was committed… but because I cannot “plead the Fifth” in Canada I am just going to mutter “mea culpa” under my breath and move on … and I would suggest you move on with me except that …. the questions about Parkinson’s go unanswered if we do.

Afterword

What causes Parkinson’s? It seems obvious to me that outhouses and poorly located “honey pits” are not high on the list of suspects. More and more the research data is leading us to the conclusion that pesticides, insecticides and fungicides are prime suspects as co-conspirators and should be investigated with increased vigour and resources. Think of it this way: the environmental violations of outhouses located too close to a water supply are summary offences or misdemeanors compared to the indictable offences or felonies that are negligence and misuse in the development and application of chemical toxins in the environment.

I am no lawyer but it seems we are closer to establishing that, at least for some portion of the Parkinson’s population, there is an actus reus but is there no agreement that there is mens rea by those who develop, manufacture, sell and use the toxins i.e., they did not intend that the chemicals to contribute to an increase in neurological diseases of which Parkinson’s disease is one. But should they have known? After all, they were developing chemicals that work by attacking the nervous systems of those pests they were trying to kill. Would that not twig someone to ask the question, what does this mean for human neurological systems? If it did, then did they find that it was without cause for concern? Did they downplay the consequences? Did they willfully ignore the signs? Is there an act of omission? Did someone breach a duty to act? Are we confident that there is no corporate interference with, and influence on, the research process?

There are so many questions, so little real time and so few resources. The weight of the evidence is beginning to accrue towards a conclusion that exposure to pesticides is related to Parkinson’s disease but don’t hold your breath for chemical corporations to step up and say, “mea culpa”;  to start making amends (reparations is probably too strong) through financial contributions to independent Parkinson’s research; and to defray the costs of pharmaceuticals and medical/therapeutic devices and programs which enhance quality of life for Persons living with Parkinson’s.  That would indeed be a radical change in direction.

NOTES

Note 1:

Definitions:  An “outhouse” is defined as a permanent private privy used as a toilet and situated on a permanent privy pit usually 3 to 6 feet (1 to 2 meters) deep within which human waste is kept, maybe forever. The outhouse is located on private property or at a private residence and serves the sanitation needs of the owner and/or tenants. For further clarity, an “outhouse” is not equivalent to a temporary, transportable, commercial “port-a-potty” used on construction sites and at outdoor entertainment sites and fairgrounds. Such port-a-potties as the name suggests are built to be transported and have an internal waste holding tank that is designed to be emptied at a sanitation facility.

Disclaimers: 

I do not advocate that outhouses be tipped at Halloween or any other occasion nor do I condone such action as serious injury and/or property damage may result.

I am aware through social media sources that port-a-potties are overturned as a prank from time to time. I do not condone such behaviour.

I do not condone the blocking of sump pump hoses in any manner. Serious property damage may result.

Note 2:  As I write this post we are experiencing very heavy rains in eastern Ontario and western Quebec. Many homes have been flooded and their residents evacuated. It is not my intention to diminish the severity of these events by making light of the consequences of the potato plug in the sump pump hose. The situation as described, in Altamont at Halloween of that particular year is not comparable.

Note 3: I follow the convention used in most of the research literature and government documents where “pesticides” is an overarching concept that includes insecticides (insects), herbicides (plants and weeds), and fungicides (fungi.)

APPENDIX: Outhouses are a serious measure of health and sanitation

WaterAid reports that in 2015 there were over 65,000 Canadians (0.2% of the population,) mostly in rural areas who do not have safe reliable access to toilets inside their homes. The UK has over 500,000 (0.8% of the population) citizens without proper inside toilets. Interestingly, WaterAid claims the USA is approaching 0% of pop with just slightly over 36,000 citizens without adequate toilets, bettering both Canada and the UK.

Only 17 countries in the world – including Australia, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Saudi Arabia – have reported that just about every single household in the country has a safe, private toilet. (WaterAid 2015)

These numbers probably represent the best-case scenario and unfortunately we will never know the actual numbers as the question on indoor toilets is no longer asked routinely on census forms in Canada and other countries. The Washington Post puts the 2014 estimate as considerably higher at over 1.6 million households in the US without adequate indoor plumbing facilities i.e., they do not have one or more of the following: a toilet, a tub, a shower or running water. In any case, many thousands of outhouses are still in use as the primary toilet facility for households, and many more outhouses serve as secondary or back up facilities for use when the indoor toilet is otherwise occupied.

When my parents moved to an apartment in The Pas, Manitoba in the early 1970s after our father got a job at the pulp and paper mill there, I recall how excited my mother was that they were on town water and sewer. In fact, it was the very first time (ever!) that our mother had lived in a home with running water and a flush toilet. Needless to say, she was thrilled!

REFERENCES and RESOURCES

Ahmed H, Abushouk AI, Gabr M, Negida A, Abdel-Daim MM, “Parkinson’s disease and pesticides: A meta-analysis of disease connection and genetic alterations.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmetd/28412655

Alberta Environment and Parks, http://aep.alberta.ca/water/programs-and-services/groundwater/documents/AlbertaWaterWellSurvey-Report-Dec2010.pdf

Backcountry Canada Travel, http://www.backcountrycanadatravel.com/outhouse-culture-canada/

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Fact Sheet on Pesticdes http://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/chemicals/pesticides/general.html

Canadian Journal of Neurological Science https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-neurological-sciences/article/geography-drinking-water-chemistry-pesticides-and-herbicides-and-the-etiology-of-parkinsons-disease/B8A09AAE44121012B905C358CCE9A8EF

Cosmetic Pesticide Ban Manitoba https://cosmeticpesticidebanmb.wordpress.com

Cottage Life http://cottagelife.com/environment/10-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-outhouses

Grandpa Remembers: Tipping over Outhouses, July 25, 2010. http://grandpa-remembers.blogspot.ca/2010/07/tipping-over-outhouses.html

The Guardian, “Can you catch Parkinson’s?” https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/apr/04/medicalscience.healthandwellbeing

Gunnarsson, Lars-Gunnar and Bodin, Lennart,“Parkinson’s disease and occupational exposures, A systematic literature review and meta-analysis,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Health and Environment, online first, April 2017

Hamblin, James, “The Brain of a Fighter” in The Atlantic, June 8, 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/ali-and-parkinsons/485798/

Kashatus, William C, “Outhouse has faded from region’s landscape,” in Standard Speaker, June 26, 2011 http://standardspeaker.com/outhouse-has-faded-from-region-s-landscape-1.1165644

Law Lessons, http://www.lawlessons.ca/lesson-plans/2.1.definition-and-principlesb

Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pinworm/basics/causes/con-20027072

Parkinson, Dr. James, Essay on the Shaking Palsy, originally published as a monograph by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones (London, 1817). Republished by J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci 14:2, Spring 2002.

Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, http://www.pdf.org/environment_parkinsons_tanner

Parkinson’s Saskatchewan, http://www.parkinsonsaskatchewan.ca/pd/nd.html

Popular Mechanics, http://www.popularmechanics.com/home/how-to/a3896/4305543/

Small Cabin, http://www.small-cabin.com/forum/5_781_3.html

Summers, R. (2010). Alberta Water Well Survey. A report prepared for Alberta Environment. (University of Alberta: Edmonton, Canada).

Survivopedia, http://www.survivopedia.com/waste-disposal/

Warick, Jason, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation News, Saskatoon, “U of S, prof under fire for Monsanto ties,” May 17, 2017 http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/u-of-s-prof-under-fire-for-monsanto-ties-1.4100399

Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2014/04/23/1-6-million-americans-dont-have-indoor-plumbing-heres-where-they-live/?utm_term=.42d2da15b8dd

WaterAid, IT’S NO JOKE: The State of the World’s Toilets 2015 Its_No_Joke_2015_the_state_of_the_worlds_toilets.pdf

Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._C._Fields

© Stan Marshall (The PD Gardener) 2017

 

LIST OF POSTS IN THIS SERIES

DIRECTIONS: Taking the Scenic Route to Parkinson’s and Beyond

DIRECTIONS Part I: “Stay where you’re at ’til I comes where you’re to, b’y“

DIRECTIONS Part II: Stories of Halloween, outhouses, potatoes, pesticides, Parkinson’s and mea culpa

COMING SOON!

DIRECTIONS Part III: (Working title) Detours and your GPS 

 

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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.

Parkinson’s: Was it me, the pesticides or Diefenbaker?

You know, I didn’t plan much of my life. What I mean is that most of my life seems to have just happened to me.  I was there obviously, but it was as if I was swept along with the current and occasionally I would thrust an oar into the water to change direction – maybe out to sea, maybe into choppy waters, or maybe into a safe harbor.  In retrospect, maybe I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to what was happening. The question is: should I have been paying more attention and taken a more active role in setting the trajectory for my body and soul?

Would my life be different (better?) if I had formulated a grand plan or blueprint for living my life with measureable goals of achievement?  I have talked to many people who have such an orientation. Their life’s path and goals can be either detailed or general but they are never in doubt that when the final tally of their life’s work (existence) is counted, that it will be called a “success.”  Most argue that humans can control or shape their own destinies through their talents, skills, and abilities, and hard work, good judgment, and good decision-making can always be credited for success.  And conversely, if you are not a success, then you must not have the necessary skills or, more likely, you have screwed up somewhere along the way, by exercising bad judgment, bad decision-making or not working hard enough.

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning?  Photo: S. Marshall

Curbside Tansy: Good planning, bad planning, no planning? Photo: S. Marshall

I am not convinced that I can look back over my life with such certainty and proclaim that the trajectory I have followed has been purposeful to the point that I can claim to be its author either way. I certainly don’t feel as if I had a vision and worked successfully to realize that vision.  Undoubtedly, some would say that is a terribly sad thing to admit as the word “failure” carries such a heavy burden. Rest assured, I do not feel as if my life, in any respect, has been a failure.  It is just that I did not set the course alone and was not always aware of the destination.  But, as authors usually say, “I am indebted to all who made this work possible but any errors and omissions are my responsibilities alone….”  Very few say, “I took a laissez faire approach to this work and this is the way it turned out….”

I also do not think that I am a fatalist: someone who thinks that “fate” pre-determines life’s chances, direction and outcome.  This doesn’t really fit all that well with a previous post about the long shadow of the gardener where I outline the gardener’s role in intervening in the course of Nature and the role that humans play in successfully altering certain aspects of diseases and conditions affecting and afflicting the human condition.  While we do not have a cure for Parkinson’s, we most certainly do mitigate its symptoms through the use of pharmaceuticals and we alter its intensity through Deep Brain Stimulation and delay its progression through exercise. So, I am not a fatalist but neither am I in the camp where humans can absolutely control their own destiny.  Could it be that I am unknowingly floating along with one oar occasionally dipping into the water so that I am going in circles only sporadically rather than all the time?  Hmmm … that is an intriguing thought at least.

I can pretty much tell you with certainty that no one plans to have Parkinson’s Disease.  But I have it.  Does this mean that I have screwed up somewhere along the away?  Did I miss a cue where I could have jabbed my oar into the water more forcefully to change course?  Does it mean that I am a failure – perhaps weak of mind, weak of body, or that I used poor or bad judgment along the way? Is having Parkinson’s Disease an individual failing or weakness?  Is it similar to smoking and its relationship to lung cancer where we can point to the smoker and say self-righteously that they should not have smoked; they should have known better; and now they are paying the price.

Perhaps, I should have washed my fruits and vegetables more diligently over the course of my lifetime to ensure that I was not ingesting harmful chemicals used in agriculture. Perhaps, it goes back to my parents and grandparents as they grew many of those fruits and vegetables on the farm and in small town gardens using pesticides predominant in the 1950s and 1960s (and maybe unwittingly exposing themselves and their families to unnecessarily high levels.) These decades have been coined the “Golden Age of Pesticides” led by that miracle chemical DDT which gained credibility for its effectiveness in WWII.  A whole host of products were developed – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, bactericides, miticides, rodenticides, nematicides, and fungicides – attacking pests, insects, fungus, weeds and other organisms which threatened the production of the world’s food resources. We know now that this was unhealthy but do we know that any of these chemicals cause (or caused) Parkinson’s?

Some nasty products inherited from previous owner.  Photo: S. Marshall

Some nasty products inherited from the previous owner of our house.   Photo: S. Marshall

While the relationship between pesticides and Parkinson’s is under greater and greater scrutiny, at the moment there is no scientific proof that the relationship is anything more than a correlation.  Interestingly, I did grow up in Manitoba where persons with Parkinson’s are overrepresented compared to the Canadian population.  One might surmise that Manitoba would be the ideal crucible for Parkinson’s with exposures to pesticides in the production of grains and market garden produce.  But I did not grow up on the Red River Valley flood plain, which had the highest concentration of pesticide use.  I grew up on the Manitoba escarpment formed by the shores of receding glacial Lake Agassiz.  A University of Manitoba research paper indicates that the incidence of Parkinson’s is higher along the escarpment than elsewhere in the province.  But, as usual, there are some complicating factors inasmuch as the area also has high levels of cadmium and arsenic compounds which places well water at risk of contamination through erosion and runoff.  I remember my father talking about possible arsenic contamination in our wells when I was a child in the 1950s.  Everyone in our rural location was on well water.

The present always links to the past of course, but the equation is never linear.  I guess there is no shortage of areas for me to research, contemplate and on which to opine.  I grow more like my father every day.

It is neither for personal gain nor ideological correctness that I encourage research on the relationship between Parkinson’s and pesticides.  I am sure that many would like to pin Parkinson’s on corporate greed, malicious actions of misinformation or withholding of information, and malfeasance in the application of these products.  There is litigation underway currently in at least one instance involving flight attendants on the matter of the use of pesticides on aircraft and the incidence of Parkinson’s among flight attendants.  Believe me, I am very supportive of these legal claims, but I am resigned to the fact that the most likely outcome of litigation is a settlement to those affected if the case meets what I call the “Erin Brockovich threshold” where the evidence is weighty enough to tip the corporations into a settlement.  It is true that settlements flowing from litigation provide a monetary marker that some level of justice has been reached, and a confirmation that pain and suffering has monetary value.  Indeed, some corporate behaviours will have been changed for the better in the process.  But the primary question of cause and effect remains unanswered.

The current thinking is that some genetic formations are responsive to an environmental trigger for Parkinson’s and pesticides may provide that environmental trigger in some, but not all, instances.  Still, while we are pretty certain that not all cases of PD are the consequence of exposure to pesticides, these findings provide encouragement that we may be closer to finding the cause and a cure.  I can only hope that is the case.

As much as I would like to shift the blame for my having Parkinson’s to pesticides or some other external factor, let’s return for a moment to the assumption that I have some control over my own destiny.  A slightly revised formulation of my question would be:  is Parkinson’s a consequence of having lived a “bad” life?

I am sure that you will excuse me if I approach this question in my usual unorthodox manner by asking:  Did the Right Honourable John G. Diefenbaker have anything to do with my having Parkinson’s?  John Diefenbaker was Prime Minister of Canada from June 21, 1957, to April 22, 1963.  I was 8 years old when Diefenbaker was elected Prime Minister and I remember vividly being enthralled with this character.  I would listen to his voice quavering through the radio (we didn’t have a television yet) and I could imagine his lips (which had the odd quality of being thin skinned but plump at the same time, with the lower lip often in the pouting position) on the verge of launching a spray of spittle as he castigated then opposition leader Lester B. Pearson of the Liberals on some matter of policy or perhaps, personal, difference.   Diefenbaker was always fodder for political cartoonists but it was particularly so in his later years when his jowls would hang down below his chin, shaking in indignation at his critics both within and outside the Conservative Party.

[I am not going to expound on Diefenbaker’s record as a politician, as it is not germane to any argument that I am going to make here, other than to make a personal observation that his achievements make him look like a freakin’ socialist compared to our current Conservative Prime Minister.  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.]

At any rate a corollary question has to be asked.  Did Diefenbaker himself have Parkinson’s Disease?  Remember, this was a time when there was little research and little medical thinking on the nature or prevalence of PD.  One biographer, Phillip Buckner, says that Diefenbaker had a “nervous habit of shaking his jowls which led to rumours that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease….” Of course an accusation of PD was designed to discredit Diefenbaker and cast doubt on his ability to lead a government.  On June 7, 2001 (22 years after Diefenbaker’s death,) the University of Saskatchewan took an unusual step to issue a press release, announcing research concluding that Diefenbaker did not suffer from Parkinson’s but had “essential tremor,” thus protecting, posthumously, his intellectual integrity and mental capacity to lead a Canadian national government.

OK, so what is all this about Diefenbaker?  The majority of you (a) weren’t even born when Diefenbaker was prime minister; (b) aren’t interested in historical political figures; (c) are apolitical; (d) live in another country; and e) think I have gone off my rocker.  These facts would indicate that I have gone in this direction pretty much to satisfy myself.  Could it be that I am now just beginning to understand that my recipe for blogging is one part self-indulgence on behalf of the writer, one part indulgence from the reader, and one part curiosity from both the writer and the reader as to whether any worthwhile windows on the writer’s soul will be opened if we continue?  I am not sure if you like this recipe, but as with any recipe, you should try it at least once – preferably not half-baked.

In spite of my early fascination with Diefenbaker, I was never a convert to his political vision and for years I openly made light of – no, I openly made fun of the possibility that Diefenbaker had Parkinson’s.  I would impersonate his voice and try to form a shake of my jowls (hidden beneath my beard!) in the most exaggerated manner possible with my lips quivering wetly and indignantly, “Ppppparkinson’s? Rrrriiiidicuulousss!”  It might have fit the atmosphere and political flavor of the moment and I recall that others and I laughed uproariously (more or less, depending on the amount of libation already consumed) at this totally inappropriate and spurious ad hominem attack.

So, I am left sometimes wondering:  am I now paying the price for some pretty stupid things I said about John G. Diefenbaker?  This is not the only stupid thing I have ever done in my life (my children will be surprised that I admit this,) but maybe it is the one thing that has floated to the top of some pond of scum that constitutes the totality of my failings, and the life I now live is matched to the chemical characteristics of that signature scum.

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

Sometimes the path and destination are not entirely clear. Photo: S. Marshall

I haven’t made a study of how people rationalize life’s existence and condition, nor do I plan to do so.  Nevertheless, I would very surprised if any of us who have Parkinson’s doesn’t ask the question: why me?  [I am sure this is common for those who have other debilitating or life threatening conditions.]  And we begin to assess our life in ways that would offer an explanation.  There are, of course, many answers and many paths to follow in the quest for an answer.  Genetics? Pesticides? Other environmental factors?  God’s will?  The answer that makes sense to us as individuals provides the sustenance for our survival.  We need to understand and rationalize our existence, the condition of our existence, and the conditions placed upon our existence.  Not easy stuff to think about and not easy stuff to live.  Hopefully, each of us will find a path and an answer that allows for loving and caring relationships in our families and in our communities. I am exceedingly fortunate to have found such unequivocal love with Anne and all of our children.  But we must also, in our external relationships, free ourselves of bitterness and animosity to those who find different paths with different answers – whether existential or spiritual.

As I review these thoughts,  I am reminded that in a previous post, we flew perilously close to a philosophical sun without melting our wings; today I have taken us perilously close to religious concepts where we might conceivably burn up totally.  I have steered purposefully away from using words, concepts or constructs such as Heaven and Hell, sin and salvation.  Those ideas are undoubtedly on the path for many and are already part of the answer for many.  Are they part of mine?  They haven’t been to date. This is as far as I am prepared to go on this subject at the moment as it is quite foreign terrain for me.  Undoubtedly, I will wander there in future posts.

The only thing I am willing to concede is that I don’t for a minute think that John G. Diefenbaker would assign Parkinson’s Disease in an act of retribution from the Beyond.  But then, have I been speaking “literally” or “figuratively?”  Is Diefenbaker the personification of God?  I bet that he’s never been called that!  Although Dalton Camp may have called him the Devil!  (I hope this statement sends at least some of you scrambling for your Canadian political history books….)

So, why me?  It is not Diefenbaker’s doing.  I don’t believe it is because I led a “bad” life. Is it not fruitless to add up the totalities of one’s failures and successes to pass judgment on your life’s worth?  Anyway, isn’t that someone else’s job?  The jury is still out on the role of pesticides. And who knows whether I could have taken decisive action during my lifetime to change the course of my personal history with Parkinson’s?

Maybe the best answers are really questions: a) who knows (shrug)?  b) if gardens were planned like lives, would we have invented pesticides? and c) if lives were planned like gardens, would we have invented pesticides?

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off. Phota: S. Marshall

Bad Judgment: Letting The PD Gardener have the camera when his meds have worn off.       Photo: S. Marshall