• A photograph

I was leafing through an old National Geographic compilation book called As We Live and Breathe, The Challenge of Our Environment, when I chanced upon a two-page spread devoted to the Huckleby family and a large photograph that took my breath away. I reproduce it here, not knowing who the photographer or copyright holder is. {UPDATE: James P. Blair is the photographer – he commented on this entry. Thank you, James!}

Color Photograph of Ernestine Huckleby from National Geographic (photographer?)

This is Ernestine Huckleby.

  • Ernestine’s story

In 1969, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, her family sat down to a meal of pork from a hog they had raised themselves. A year earlier, the pig had been fed grains that were not meant for consumption (animal or human), but only for planting more grains. They had been treated with the pesticide Panogen, which contained methyl mercury.

Though all the family members showed high doses of mercury in their bodies, only three of the childen were severely affected. There is conflicting information on the web. The most repeated story is that “one was deafened, another was blinded, a third arrived at the hospital raving mad.” The photographs in the National Geographic book paint a more complex picture: a young woman (Dorothy Jean Huckleby) learning to walk with crutches, and a teenager (Amos Charles), blind but learning to speak again. Of the little girl, whose age I can’t ascertain, the book says “Blinded, mute, her hearing and powers of movement severely impaired, Ernestine Huckleby clings to life”.  There also seems to have been a baby still in utero when her mother ate the pork, and she was born with a severely damaged central nervous system.

  • Iconized and forgotten

Back in 1970, when the story made national headlines, it forced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ban and recall all mercury-containing pesticides.  Today “the Huckleby Poisoning” still stands as one of the icons for the innocents who are harmed by environmental destruction in the interest of commercial gain and under the “watchful” eye of the government.

But Ernestine, she is forgotten.

When you Google “Ernestine Huckleby”, you get one irrelevant search result. The web, where everyone lives nowadays, does not acknowledge her.

This iconization is a good thing: such images stick in our minds and move our hearts like no theory, accumulation of scientific data or political manifesto can. They make us think, feel, speak out. But does it have to come at such a price?

  • Dreaming of Ernestine

The world snapped a picture. The face became an icon. It discarded the little girl behind it, behind those eyes.

Tonight I will dream of Ernestine, dancing and skipping, singing and laughing. Then I will dream about the world slamming shut on her. Is she still there, in that little girl clutching the stuffed animal with the pink bow? It is terrible to admit it: I hope not. I hope Ernestine too forgot herself. The alternative is simply too horrific.

Update: more of Ernestine’s story here.

gdiaper.jpg sevgen_diaper.jpg

I published a new and updated review of “green” diapers (Seventh Generation, Whole Foods 365 Private Label and gDiapers).

There’s a lot of new information, much of it gained from very recent email exhanges with the companies involved, as well as some more thorough research on the net.

The new review complements the old one with many new facts and considerations about:

  1. The safety of SAP
  2. The lack of biodegradation of (even) green diapers in landfills
  3. Polypropolene as an ingredient
  4. The biodegradability of gDiapers in sewage, and SAP again
  5. What does “chlorine-free” mean, what’s the difference between ECF and TCF, and does it make a difference, e.g., between green and non-green disposables?
  6. And where does the woodpulp hail from?

If the article concludes anything, it is that the choice of diapers is not as easy as it seems, even after you’ve made up your mind about “going green”. For instance,

if I accept that SAP is safe and non-toxic to babies and to the environment, all three diapers reviewed here, and indeed all disposables, are acceptable. But then I ask, what about the other ingredients? If the polypropolene bothers me, I should switch to gDiapers. But what about the wood pulp in gDiapers? Does it matter that it is only Elemental Chlorine-Free (ECF) and not Total Chlorine-Free (TCF)? Come to think of it, this ECF claim that is so intensely advertized to make the green diaper look better, also applies to much of the pulp used in Huggies, for instance? On the other hand,  how sure can be be of that? And also, some of the Huggies wood pulp comes all the way from Australia, where do Seventh Gen, 365 and gDiapers get their wood…

Suggestions and comments are welcome: please make them to this post (still haven’t figured out the comment-on-pages issue).

Amie’s crayon drawing of scond week of May 07

I just put up the fifth article in the series “Drawing as it Develops”:

Amie discovers colors!

Go check out her marvellous creations!

  • Articles in the series (so far):
  1. First Drawings of a Very Young Child: Amie at 16 months
  2. Circles, and Coloring Books (a Mistake?): Amie at 18 months
  3. More Circles, Graphs, and post hoc naming: Amie at 18-19 months
  4. Naming and Representation: Amie at 20 months
  5. Explosion of Color: Amie at 20-21 months (this article)

clay figure my mom made for me

David Holmgren, at the beginning of his book Permaculture, Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability (p.7), gives some examples of non-material well-being:

When we enjoy a sunset rather than watching a movie, when we look after our health by walking rather than consuming medicine, when we spend time playing with a child rather than buying them a toy…

I’m thinking even better would be making a toy for a child. A wooden horse, for instance, or a doll. Part, if not all, of its making would have to happen in her presence, so she can see the skill, attention and care it requires. So she can witness the time and love we pour into it. So she can learn the virtue of patience and experience the joy of anticipation. And, if she could contribute to it herself, the pride of accomplishment.

It would be an all-round toy for an all-round child.

{The picture is of a clay figure my Mom made for me. Amie lovingly calls it “Funny Guy”.}

color drawing of myself and cousins making sandcastle

  • Is one enough?

We are asked quite often if we want a second child. It’s a tough question.

As for myself, I always envisioned three: two of our own and one adopted. But I don’t have time on my side: I am already 35, and I don’t think Amie is ready for a younger sibling as yet, let alone an adopted sibling. Financially, having one child has turned out to be a lot more expensive than we thought. And then there are the (new) ecological worries about overpopulation, consumption, and a difficult future.

But mainly I feel that Amie is enough for us, and that we are enough for her (so far). Only kids can be lonely, I know, but we take care to involve her in our own active social life, to let her participate in our adult friendships, and to cultivate her relationship with kids her own age.

  • Is more too much?

And on the other side of “enough” there is also “too much”. My sister and only sibling is two years younger than me. I remember most clearly the turbulence of our adolescent relationship, but there are earlier memories that rankle: of being manipulated, of having to be the one to fight the battles.

The most prohibitive, however, is a much older “memory cloud” of abandonment. Perhaps I shouldn’t write “abandonment”: that’s too discrete a concept, perhaps an after-the-fact rationalization. Rather, it’s a complex and almost visceral feeling of confusion, fear, sadness and loneliness.

I used to think it was a false memory, a later romantization of my plight as “the oldest one”. But seeing Amie now and imagining introducing her to her little sister or brother, ties a knot in my stomach that I seem to know too well. And don’t wish upon her.

  • Sandbox revelations

Yesterday, in the sandbox, Amie ignored all the kids her age and younger. She’s a very-parallel-play-er. The kids at daycare will run to the door to greet her when she arrives, but she never pays them any notice. In the sandbox, when approached by another child, she was wary, especially as she was “collecting scoops,” of which she relinquished one only when I asked her to share.

Then an older boy came along. He was older as in 9 years, to her 22 months. He ignored her, but she suddenly took notice in the most striking way. As he walked by her, she held out a scoop to him and eagerly said:

“You want it? You want it?”

He didn’t notice and she stood there, a bit frazzled. And as she recovered, it hit me: Amie would actually love a sibling, but an older sibling!

  • An older sibling now…

Wouldn’t that be neat? The older kid could be 8 or 9 and already at home in the world and in our family (so adopting an 8-year-old wouldn’t quite count). If she was a girl, she would love a little Amie to play with, help take care of her, and show her off to her girlfriends. If he was a boy, he would manage quite well to ignore her most of the time, and extend gracious big-brother benevolence when it matters. Amie could look up at her/him, and he/she would totally understand her dependence and high maintenance…

Has anyone figured out how to do this yet?


A while ago I published a review of gDiapers, Seventh Generation diapers and Whole Food 365 diapers.

In the meantime I’ve received comments and questions from discerning and concerned readers, gained some more hands-on (hah!) experience with the gDiapers, and found some more questions on the net.

These are additional questions that I am now investigating:

  1. What is the “poly” in Seventh Generation? I assumed it was polyurethane, and left it at that, but a reader suggests: “It is still plastic; in fact, it’s the same polypropolene used to line landfills (that’s how water-tight and air-tight they are!).” I’ve written to Seventh Generation for clarification.
  2. Another concern is where that absorbant woodpulp comes from. Many (other) disposables get it straight from China, which raises many environmental  and health concerns (e.g., poisoned toothpaste, melamine in pet food, and antifreeze in medicines).
  3. After a couple more weeks of using gDiapers, Amie started complaining that they are “too tight” and “hurt”. So, as per her request, in the update I will also address the sizing issue of gDiapers, the scratchiness of their velcro, and the lack of an Extra Large size.
  4. There will also be some musing on the gDiaper leaking-issue, and the staining of the snap-in/out liners.

If you have any other questions you want me to investigate, email me or comment on this post. (I just realized readers can’t comment on “pages”, which is what my review is, only on “posts”: will try to do something about that soon!)

… six kinds of basil! Six!

They’re in clay pots perched on the ledge that surrounds our basement entrance.

Sounds gloomy? No: they’re in the sun! They’re soaking up the sun and soon we will harvest some of that energy for ourselves.

I plan to get more herbs (last year we successfully grew basil, cilantro, rosemary, thyme and dill). They each have to fit in a smallish container, preferably two or three plants a pot. All together they have to fit on the ledge, which is the only space that we can (sort of) claim for growing our own plants, and the only place where the sun directly shines.

I’d like to get a cherry tomato plant as well… any other suggestions?

I also got out the “bug jar”, the clear glass jar we use for catching bugs in our house. I caught a large spider yesterday morning and Amie and I watched it crawl around for a while. Then I released it by shaking it out of the jar into the grass. Amie later said: “Mama threw the spider away”.

Photograph of small farm on river bend

  • Holmgren’s place

I’m oggling David Holmgren’s Melliodora, or at least what is avaiable of it for free on the net (the whole e-book seems worth it but is still AUS$35). You can check it out yourself here (go to publications, click on the e-book, then scroll down to the free demo).

ebook cover Holmgrens’ Melliodora

The Melliodora project is a model of what I would love to do with a place:

  1. get to know it by all kinds of methods (aerial maps, soil and water samples, photographs and sketches)
  2. in detail (each aspect of its landscape, soils, waterways, flora and fauna, its history too)
  3. approach it pragmatically (how can it best be developed, what plants will grow where best, where can we build structures, where can we harvest energy)
  4. live it by personal experience (actually build the structures and work the land, suffer the losses, celebrate the successes)
  5. treat it ethically (how to use the place sustainably, with respect for all its inhabitants, the firther environment)
  6. and wholistically (how to let it enrich our physical as well as our spiritual being, e.g., how to maximize its educational potential) 
  • A whole dream

Holmgren presents all the elements of the development and maintenance of his own home and demonstration site, Melliodora, as a case-study as scientifically detailed and as personally intense as they come. As a showcase of permaculture, it is a practical and scientific approach to place, food, time and life, based on ethical, educational and spiritual principles. 

I feel so lucky to have found this project. Its spirit (not its size) matches, challenges and fires my dream, the Homestead Plan.

The books I am reading are effecting a revolution in me that I would like to postpone describing for a bit: let me work through it in my journal for a while. Then I hope I will be able to put down in words, for you, what is happening in my thinking and feeling, how revolutionary but also how logical it really is, given the changes in our lives over the last two years, the dreams of the past few months, the reading of the past few days and, simply, the kind of person that I am today and want to be tomorrow…

So I’m sorry to keep you waiting, I hope it will be worthwhile. In the meanwhile,  though, I’ll let you in on the books that are fueling this change.

  • Rick Bass for the mood

I’m reading two of Rick Bass’ books. Winter I have read several times before. I still remember my first reading of it, how powerfully it affected my mood: I am happy that it does the same thing to me each time I reread it. I’m only thirty-something pages into Bass’ Ninemile Wolves, but it has already moved me deeply. I think this is what Bass does best: the steady accumulation of mood…

Cover of Rick Bass: The Ninemile Wolvescover of Rick Bass: Winter

  • Holmgren for thought

But the greatest impression, or rather pressure  at the moment is being exerted by David Holmgren’s Permaculture. Principes and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. I have been reading up on Permaculture gardening (Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden) for The Homestead Plan, but this book, well…

cover of David Holmgren’s Permaculture

If you’ve read this book, let me know what it did for you.