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What is LASIK Like?

What is LASIK Like_

What is LASIK Like?

H. Bradford

7/15/18

Earlier this week, I underwent LASIK eye surgery.   In the past year, I had considered it more deeply than in the past.  I figured that perhaps I would try to get it in a few years to mark turning 40 (as I am constructing a list of things I want to do to mark that milestone year).  However, a few things had prompted me to get the procedure early.  One, in April, one of my contact lenses (one eye) was back ordered for over a month.  This meant that I had to wear the wrong eye’s prescription in the back ordered eye (as I had run out of contacts for that eye but was able to re-stock the other eye) for over a month.  Two, in May,  I actually lost a contact lens while at work.  This meant that I had to have one of my housemates drive to my job with a replacement lens so I could see well enough to work.  Both of these instances made me consider moving my timeline ahead.  I ultimately decided to go ahead with LASIK because I found that I could qualify for reasonable financing, which made it possible for me to afford the procedure.


 

History:

I began wearing glasses in the first grade.  I remember that I actually WANTED glasses at the time, since I thought that glasses were cool.  Although I had mild vision problems, I remember lying on the vision test since I really, really, really wanted to glasses.  Yes, I lied.   I began wearing glasses, which as is turned out, was not all that I hoped it would be.  By the time I was in high school, I really hated wearing glasses, especially an exceptionally dorky pair that I had in 10th grade.  As it turns out, glasses can be expensive and after my parent’s divorce, I remember getting a cheap replacement pair that I really hated since that was what my mother could afford.  There is no shame on my mother or for being poor, it was simply a reality of my life and what we could afford. Thankfully, I was able to get into contact lenses in the 11th grade.  From then on, I wore my contact lenses every day and only wore my glasses for a few minutes a day (such as when first waking up or just before bed).  I wore my contacts without problem or incident, spare an inflamed cornea that I suffered in my early 20s.  I switched contact lens brands and the problem cleared up, spare one week of wearing an eye patch….which I also didn’t mind for the pirate aesthetic.


However, in the past few years I have traveled a bit more and started to feel a longing to be rid of both contacts and glasses.  In one instance, I remember traveling some very dusty roads in Namibia, which irritated my eyes.  There was also a dusty windstorm which also resulted in dust in my contacts.  Generally, wearing contacts during travel that involves camping, dust, wind, or water activities has been an inconvenience.  In my imagination, I began to think that I would be more adventurous if I simply got rid of my contacts once and for all.  This is patently untrue.  I am not adventurous because I am cautious by nature.  HOWEVER, I imagined going rafting, kayaking, paddle boarding, swimming, camping, and other activities far more if only I was rid of contacts.  In my medical imagination, I began to associate LASIK with freedom and adventure.  Beyond this, almost everyone in my family has had LASIK.  This includes my mother, father, brother, and even my grandmother.  They are all advocates of LASIK, as it has worked out well for them.  Therefore, I felt confident that it would probably work out well for myself as well…

The Process:

I had not been saving for the procedure, as I had fantasized that it would happen at some far off time (in a fantasy world where I am better at saving).   I noticed that Weiss Eye Clinic in Hermantown offered financing for LASIK.  Before making an informational appointment, I checked to see if I would qualify for the financing option as that was no point making an appointment if I could not afford it.  I qualified online, so I made my appointment.


The first appointment was a consultation with a basic eye exam.  It was a short meeting which discussed how LASIK work and checked my eyes to see if I would qualify.  One important test was the thickness of my cornea, which was well above average and therefore eligible for LASIK.   Corneal thickness is important since LASIK reshapes the cornea.  I was told about some of the risks, which I had already read about online and didn’t feel particularly concerned about (I suppose since everyone I know who had the procedure did not have any major complications).   From there, I scheduled another eye appointment.  This was scheduled over two weeks from the consultation date, during which time I could not wear my contact lenses.


Not wearing my contacts was awful.  I hate wearing glasses.   I actually had a count-down on my bedroom calendar.  Each day, I checked to see how many days I had left on my calendar.   I have not watched a calendar countdown with such anticipation for the end since I was a child and my mother would hang up a cloth Advent Calendar with pockets for each day.  A stuffed mouse would sit in the pocket for each day leading up to Christmas, moving one pocket over for each passing day.   I was very aware that I was always wearing glasses.  They became sweaty and foggy with heat and temperature changes.  They always seemed to get dirty, so I would wipe them off multiple times each day.  It was my first time regularly wearing glasses since 10th grade.  I also felt that I couldn’t do physical activities.  I imagined them bouncing up and down on my face while running or just getting dirty and sweaty.  When I went for walks, a sudden rain suddenly became an enormous annoyance as once again, the glasses became unusable.  I know that people wear glasses without problem and actually enjoy wearing them, but to me, they are a facial prison.  I can honestly say I hated every day that I had to wear my glasses.  The only bright side was that I picked up a lot of overtime at my job.  I had 25 hours of it one week.  This made the time pass faster and made glasses less terrible, since I wasn’t doing anything public or active (just working).


After what felt like an eternity of wearing glasses, I had my eye exam.  It seemed like a regular eye exam, which generally tested my vision to make certain that the surgery would make the proper refractive correction.  I also had to watch a video and take a quiz about possible complications.  The only unusual aspect of the eye exam was a glaucoma test, which I have not had before.  My eyes were dilated for the test and remained dilated for several hours after.  This made for an interesting morning as I went about my day in the intensely…painfully bright world.  I went for a hike and imagined that I was a dark elf or some other mythical creature of a nocturnal world. I kept to the shadows of the trees, trying to avoid the sinister sunlight which I could barely endure.  After all, this was my first time leaving the dark, matriarchal comforts of Menzoberranzan.  (Yes, oddly I thought a lot about dark elves on the hike).  I don’t own prescription sunglasses, which may have helped.   I also went for lunch at Toasty’s, trying not to let the world see the fact that my pupils were giant lunar eclipses.  By the time that I had a work meeting a few hours later, the pupils were not quite as huge- but still large enough that I felt that I had to explain myself.  In any event, I was scheduled for the actual LASIK surgery about a week and a half after this exam.


It was smooth sailing until the surgery.  I thought little of it and had no anxiety prior to the surgery.  Oddly enough, I was not at all worried about having my eyes pried open and corrected with a laser.  My only worry was that I might get sick from the Valium I was given before the procedure.    I have emetophobia, so my main concern when entering a new situation is whether or not it will make me puke.  I did not suppose the laser would cause me to vomit, hence it caused no anxiety at all.   Thankfully, the Valium was awesome.  I don’t drink or use drugs, so I generally enjoy when I am given a medically sanctioned sedative.  I need to be sedated.  I am stressed out about the world.  I work at a domestic violence shelter.  I feel like I am living life in a meaningless hellworld where everything will die, everything is painful, and there is nothing I can effectively do about it.  Yay, Valium!


The procedure itself involved being given Valium, putting on medical booties and a hair cover, having numbing drops administered to my eyes, then laying out on a table.  While on the table, my eyes were clamped open in a way that I imagine is similar to a scene in A Clockwork Orange.  I was too numb and relaxed to mind.  While on the table, I looked up at the laser.   The procedure I underwent was Z-LASIK, which apparently is performed using only a laser and is marketed as bladeless.  I understand this to mean that a laser is used to both make a flap in the eye and reshape the cornea.  Thus, while on the table, a small flap was cut into my eye with a laser.  Once the flap was made, the cornea was reshaped.  From my own experience, it involved looking up at a red light.  There was also a green light, which I was not supposed to focus on.  The red light appeared diffuse with a focused red dot at the center.  I gazed up at the light, like looking into the eye of a mechanical angel or God.  There was a slight humming sound and accompanying odor, which was the smell of carbon atoms released from my cornea.  It was not an unpleasant or worrisome smell.  The whole process lasted less than a minute then was repeated on my other eye.  I did not feel any pain or discomfort, though I could feel that something was happening to my eyes.


My brother warned me that he could not see at all after his LASIK surgery.  However, I could see right away.  My main problem after the procedure was that I had trouble walking, as the Valium had made me unsteady.   After the surgery, I was instructed to sleep (as I would sleep through the pain as the drops wore off).  When I arrived home, I slept from about 10 am to 3pm (I took a Tylenol PM).   When I woke up, I could see generally well and didn’t feel too much discomfort, though light was shrouded in halos.  I could see well enough to drive….and felt well enough to go to a HOTDISH Militia meeting and a Homeless Bill of Rights event that evening.   My only error was that my night vision was not that great the first day and after both meetings, I went for a walk until dark, then had to drive home.  So, as a word to the wise, it is probably better to test your vision a bit more after the surgery.   I went to work the next day.


 

     After Care:

Aside from sleeping, I was instructed not to go into water (other than a shower) for two weeks, to avoid eye makeup for one week, to put antibiotic drops in my eyes for four days, wear goggles while sleeping, to avoid rubbing my eyes, and wear googles or sunglasses while doing outdoor activities that could result in a foreign object entering my eye.   I had an eye appointment the morning after the surgery and another following up will happen at one month, three month, six month, and twelve month intervals.  During the next two months, my eyes could change and adjust.  For now, my main side effects experienced have been dry eyes after sleeping, halos, and lessened night vision.  I have noticed that the halos and night vision has improved over the past few days.  I hope that they continue to improve as my eyes heal, since I work at night.  None of these side effects are severe enough that I regret having the procedure done, though I am still operating under the assumption they will continue to improve.


It is truly amazing to see with my own eyes for the first time since the first grade.  Each day, I still come home from work thinking that I have to take out my contacts.  It is great to wake up able to see and go to bed able to see.  I think this will also help on flights and at work.  Whenever I wanted to take a nap, even a short 15 minute nap, I have had to take my contacts out.  This is because they always became uncomfortably plastered to my eyes after even the shortest nap (which I sometimes use my break to nap).  This means that taking small naps on planes, buses, trains, or on work breaks has meant taking my contacts out.  It is great to sleep without taking out my lenses!  Flights are terrible because they have always dried out my contacts.  At least now I can see on flights without removing my contacts.  I also had the great realization that I can actually see in the shower.  This seems like no big deal, but it is neat to be able to see ALL of the time.  I think that it really does open up possibilities- especially in terms of water sport participation.  I hate water.  I am a coward when it comes to water.  But, at least I will be able to SEE if I choose to go rafting again or SEE if I do any activity that involves water in my eyes.  One of my goals is to try out more watery activities, even though I hate them…simply because I CAN!


 

Cost:

My procedure, including all of the follow up visits, cost $3,300.   My insurance covered a $400 eye exam prior to the LASIK, but insurance does not cover LASIK itself.  Weis Eye Center offers financing through CareCredit which is a glorified, medical credit card.  The main benefit of this card is that you pay no interest at all if you pay off the balance within 12 months.  However, due to other bills and spending goals, I opted to pay interest and finance the procedure over 2 years.  I could have chosen to pay it off in 3, 4, or 6 years, which obviously would have resulted in smaller monthly payments, but much more interest.  My hope is that I can pay it off in less than 2 years to avoid paying as much in interest (even though I will pay some).   I feel comfortable that this was not a terrible financial decision, even if paying it off in one year would have been more ideal.  With that said, I believe that insurance should cover the procedure.  While it is viewed by society as elective or cosmetic, I think that it is entirely reasonable to want functional eyes without the use of glasses or contacts.   I have found glasses and contacts to have many draw backs, especially regarding travel and physical activities.  I think that anyone who wants to have their eyes corrected should be able to access this (so, ideally, beyond insurance it should be a part of the services available to people if medicine was socialized).   Of course, each person has to weigh the risks on their own.  Dry eyes, halos, lessened night vision, or more serious complications are certainly worth considering.  And, not everyone hates glasses and contacts as much as I have disliked them.  Glasses can be fashionable and more comfortable than contacts.  And, obviously, I wore contacts for years without problems other than minor inconveniences.


     Conclusion:

It is entirely possible that some complication could still arise or that my minor eye problems will not correct themselves.  Still, to me, LASIK feels like freedom.  I certainly idealize it.  Realistically, I have not done a single adventurous thing since getting LASIK earlier this week (though I did SIGN up to do snorkeling on my upcoming trip).   But, I have enjoyed the everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  Seeing all of the time is great!  Not having to touch my eyes or take out my lenses is also super!  I will be going camping next week, and it will be nice to be able to blindly navigate to a toilet at night or not have to fumble around to find my glasses in the dark.  So far, I have enjoyed the sum of the small, everyday advantages of not wearing contacts.  While I won’t magically become more intrepid it will at least give me one less thing to worry about.  With that said, I definitely recommend LASIK.

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Illegal Abortion: Lessons From Romania

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Illegal Abortion: Lessons from Romania

by H. Bradford

7/10/18

I recently read Gail Kligman’s The Politics of Duplicity.  In the past, I had read parts of the book, drawing from it for my thesis on the topic of abortion in formerly communist countries.  In preparation for my upcoming short vacation to Romania, I wanted to read some books about Romanian topics, so I reconnected with the book for that purpose.  Reflecting upon the book, there are some lessons that can be drawn from Romania’s abortion experience.  Abortion access has been relentlessly attacked and restricted since its legalization in 1973 and Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will certainly be hostile to Roe v. Wade.  While the spectre of inaccessible, if not illegal, abortion has haunted America for decades, there is fearful anticipation among activists that a new era of attacks on reproductive rights is upon us.  Therefore, Kligman’s book is timely for anyone looking to learn from the historical horrors of illegal abortion.


To provide some context, in 1966 abortion was made illegal in Romania by the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu.  Decree 770 made abortion illegal in most cases, spare some medical conditions, age thresholds (40 or 45 depending upon the age), rape, incest, fetal deformity, or having already raised a certain number of children (4-5 depending on the year).  Abortion remained illegal until the collapse of Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1989.  During this time period, contraceptives were unavailable in Romania, women were subjected to regular mandatory gynecological exams to monitor pregnancies/abortions/reproductive health, abortion seekers and providers were imprisoned, childless people were fined, homosexuality and adultery was criminalized, and divorce was made difficult to obtain.  The state mobilized propaganda, medical institutions, and the criminal justice system towards enforced reproduction in the interest of demographic goals.  According to Kligman’s book, this reproductive dystopia was the inspiration of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Although the United States is very different from communist Romania in the 1960s-80s, some important lessons can be drawn from these nightmarish decades.


1.Abortion Does Not End With Illegality:

Despite Romanian’s draconian laws and lack of access to birth control, abortion did not end.  Women either found legal channels, such as obtaining an abortion for medical purposes (as some conditions allowed for abortion) or faking a miscarriage or illegal channels, such as willing doctors or underground providers.  Most often it was through illegal channels.  The option of travel was not available to most Romanian women, but for a privileged minority this was also a means to obtain an abortion.  One way or another, women continued to seek abortions.  Of course, the ability to seek an abortion was largely dependent upon privilege.  Women who knew doctors, had more social networks, had favorable connections to the police or state, more money, or other resources could more easily circumvent the laws.  Thus, the burden of illegal abortion hits the most marginalized populations the hardest.  It is the poorest and most estranged from social institutions who were forced to reproduce.   For example, Kligman (1998) relayed the story of a peasant woman who was awarded a Medal of Maternal Glory for having 10 children.  She used the award ceremony as a platform to beg for an extra bed.  While she was celebrated for her large number of children, it may very well been for lack of access to an alternative and certainly, this state celebrated choice was not supported by accompanying material resources.


Within the United States, if abortion was made illegal, abortion seekers would continue to have access to it.  Women with careers, credit cards, no criminal histories, U.S. passports, and paid vacation time could access abortion in other countries if it was made illegal here.  Generally, those with resources such as money and vehicles could travel to states where abortion laws were less restrictive.  Those with social networks or living in urban areas, might have access to underground illegal abortion services.  Thus, once again, abortion would not disappear, though the limited access would have the greatest impact on poor women, women of color, rural women, women with criminal histories, immigrant women, and those whose access is already severely limited by lack of abortion access and funding.  The Anti-abortion movement is inherently a war against the most oppressed members of society.  While illegal abortion would certainly be a challenge to educated, “middle class”, mobile, white women, the impact would be deeper felt by those who face multiple oppressions.


  1.  Unsafe Abortion:

The illegality of abortion in Romania drove women to seek abortions.  Some abortions were performed by doctors looking to supplement their modest incomes and some were performed by those who genuinely wanted to help women.  These abortions were made unsafe by the secretive conditions that illegal abortion created.  Doctors had to hide their tools, work quickly, and perform abortions in private residences.  Others were self-induced or performed by non-professionals.  About half of these illegal abortions were performed without harm to the woman.  As for the rest, women often found themselves suffering complications from the herbs, plants, toxins, or objects used to perform the abortion.  This created the hard choice between seeking medical help and risking criminal charges or the possibility of death.  Around 60% of women who went to the hospital for pregnancy complications had sought illegal abortion.  In all, there was an average of 341 deaths per year from abortion complications while abortion was illegal in Romania.  Illegal abortion is the death sentence for some women.


Maternal death can also be expected if abortion were to be made illegal in the United States.  There are some key improvements in the United States compared to Romania.  For one, abortion medicine is more advanced.  In Romania, abortions were only performed by curettage, as vacuum aspiration was unavailable before 1989.  Mifepristone had not yet been invented, so medical abortion was also unavailable (misoprostol the other drug used to induce abortion had been invented but would not have been available in Romania).  The lack of abortion technology made abortion less safe in Romania than if abortion became illegal in the United States.  Nevertheless, if abortion were illegal in the United States, abortion seekers and providers would still face tough choices if complications arose.  Because doctors in the United States are better paid than those in Romania and their education comes at a steep cost, fewer might be incentivized by earning extra money than those in communist Romania were.  This may put women in the hands of those who have less access to abortion medicine/knowledge.  Illegality means less regulation, oversight, uniformity, accreditation, sanitary conditions, and more dangers.  This isn’t to argue that only medical professionals are capable of providing safe abortion.  There were certainly Romanian women who obtained safe abortions from non-medical providers whose folk knowledge of plants and good fortune were enough to end a pregnancy.  However, illegal abortion creates more unknown variables that can contribute to a lack of safety.


  1. Criminality:

In Romania, both women and doctors were imprisoned for seeking/performing abortions.  Time in prison was generally one to three years.  However, some repeat offenders found themselves in prison for longer.  Even those who facilitated abortion were imprisoned, such as the girlfriend of a doctor who was imprisoned for one year without a change of clothes.  She was believed to have hosted the abortion in her apartment.  Doctors who performed illegal abortions could lose their medical license, or at the very least, had to work in another area of medicine.


If the anti-abortion movement in the United States believes that abortion is murder, then it follows that abortion must carry with it some sort of penalty.  In the U.S. the penalty for murder is often life imprisonment and sometimes capital punishment.  Those who argue that abortion is murder rarely argue for the same punishment as murder, which is odd, as it indicates to me that they do not believe it is actually murder or that if it is murder, it is a different kind of murder.  Why is it different?  And, if it is different, it concedes that a fetus is not the same as a born human, for which the punishment is the harshest among all crimes.  But, supposing that abortion is made illegal but the punishment is more minor, such as a few years in prison.  The United States has the largest prison population in the world.  22% of all of the prisoners in the world are in the United States.  Illegal abortion could potentially add many people to our prison system, as one in three women have had an abortion.  What would society be like if one in three women were imprisoned?  The United States has 30% of the world’s female prison population.  African Americans make up 40% of the United States prison population, despite the fact that they are 13% of the general population.  Criminalizing abortion, like criminalizing anything in this country, disproportionately impacts people of color.

Image result for romania communist prison


  1. Unwanted Children:

One outcome of illegal abortion in Romania was unwanted children.  After all, not all women could successfully access illegal abortion.  Many of these children found themselves on the streets or were put into overcrowded, underfunded orphanages.  Because of unsanitary medical practices and lack of transparency/policy regarding HIV, some of these orphans contracted HIV.  After the collapse of communism in Romania, the Western Media broadcasted the images of underweight, despondent, dirty, neglected children in Romanian orphanages, revealing and perhaps making a spectacle of the horror of their abuse.  Romanian society failed to care for the children that women were forced to birth.  I doubt the United States would do much better.


Romanian society had some advantages over the United States when it comes to the care of children.  In Romania, retirement age was 57 for women (and 55 upon request).  For men, it was 62 or 60 upon request.  Therefore, unwanted children or children that parents simply could not care for, could be sent to retired grandparents or other relatives.  In the United States, full Social Security benefits begin at 66, but many people feel that they can no longer retire.  The pool of retirees who can provide care work for children is smaller as the economy and lack of pension benefits at jobs forces U.S. workers into the job market longer.  Romania also offered 112 days of paid maternity leave, a birth bonus, and a 10% stipend for their second child (more for additional children).  While these government funds were not sufficient to defray the actual cost of raising a child, at least the government made some effort to provide for families.  The United States does not offer free daycare, paid maternity leave, or any additional funds to support families.  In this sense, our country is profoundly unequipped to support mothers and children.  There are programs for needy families, such as MFIP and food stamps, but only the poorest can access these and this does not resolve problems such as affordable daycare and paid leave, which all working parents need.

Image result for romanian communist woman


  1. Ideology of Gender Oppression:

In the United States, it seems that one of the biggest incubators of the ideology of gender oppression is religion.  After all, most anti-abortion groups are religiously affiliated.  Because religion has been used to justify homophobia, lack of abortion access, and the oppression of women, it is easy to view religion as the source of gender oppression.  However, one lesson from Romania is that religion can be completely absent from public life and the state can still propagate ideologies that justify the oppression of women.  Romania, like all communist countries, was an atheist state.  Nevertheless, the state created mythologies about nationalism and building communism, in which the role of women was both that of a worker and glorified mother.  While the case for illegal abortion is often made on religious grounds in the United States, nationalism, economic prosperity, and even science can be mobilized to oppress women.  In Romania, propaganda created a mythology that women were naturally meant to be mothers.  That this was what made them the healthiest, happiest, and most productive.  Any ideology that states that women are naturally “X” should be a red flag.  Women are not naturally anything.  Woman is a social category which has divided the world in an unequal gender binary.  So, while I write now about women and often discuss women’s rights to abortion, it is important to remember that men and non-binary people also seek abortions.  Not all people with uteruses are women.  Part of the fight for reproductive rights is the fight to challenge notions of gender or what is natural, since “natural” is a dog whistle for what is expected and enforced.  The fight for reproductive rights is not a fight against religion, though some religions are involved in the anti-abortion movement.  In a discursive sense, it is also a fight about the very notion of what it means to be a woman.  It is a fight against the demographic and economic interests of states, which are invested in the reproduction of workers and soldiers if not the actual upkeep of children.

Image result for romanian communist women


  1. Culture of Suspicion:

Kligman (1998) noted that Romanian abortion laws created a culture of suspicion.  Women were made to have regular gynecological exams.  Doctors were mobilized by the state to police the bodies of women.  Everyday citizens were recruited by The Securitate to spy on one another.  Relationships between couples, neighbors, co-workers, doctors, etc. deteriorated as it was never certain who could be trusted and who could not.


The United States is not the same sort of police state, but because of our political and cultural environment, abortion is still a matter of secrecy and shame.  Few people discuss their abortion experience even though abortion is common.  If abortion were illegal, this secrecy and shame is likely to increase because of the legal consequence.   Therefore, it is important for supporters of abortion to fight the shame.  In the arena of discourse, we should never accept that abortion should be rare, that it is shameful, regrettable, or that no one is pro-abortion.  I am pro-abortion.  If abortion is medicine, then I am as much for abortion as I am for dental treatment, eye exams, cancer treatment, or any other form of medicine.  Abortion can be life saving.  Abortion is sometimes freedom from poverty or abusive relationships.  Like anything, it can be a positive, negative, or neutral experience based upon social and personal circumstances.

 


  1. Abortion and Abuse

Kligman (1998) did not give as much attention to this topic as it deserves, perhaps because of lack of research in this area.  However, she mentioned that in Romania, divorce was hard to obtain and abuse was considered a personal/family matter.  Even if a woman sought to escape an abusive situation, survival on a single income and the ability to obtain housing would have been nil.  She also wrote that men really did not take responsibility for pregnancy prevention and that it was up to women to obtain an abortion or deal with the consequences of pregnancy.  State health propaganda suggested that couples should have sex several times a week.  The state fostered a society wherein domestic violence was inescapable by virtue of social norms, lack of resources, enforced pregnancy, and state sanctioned male entitlement to sex.


If abortion were illegal in the United States, victims of domestic violence would similarly find themselves forced to have the children of their abuser.  Due to the efforts of the feminist movement, domestic violence is not inevitably viewed as a personal or family matter but a problem related to patriarchy and the exertion of power.  Advocates have pushed back against this narrative.  Shelters, community responses involving education police and social services, and laws that protect victims from such things as eviction or job loss are some of the victories of the feminist movement which Romanian society did not have.  However, illegal abortion would still have an impact on victims/survivors as it would force them to have the children of their abuser and through this connection continue to have to deal with them in courts (for child support, custody, visitation) and in life (if the abuser does have partial custody, visitation).  Enforced pregnancy (through rape or sabotage or denial of birth control) is one of many ways that abusers exert control over victims.  Illegal abortion is essentially the state’s sanction of sexual abuse.

  1.  U.S. Foreign Policy- Exporting Anti-Abortion

One final lesson from Romania is that Western countries were either indifferent or supportive of Ceausescu’s abortion policies.  Nixon visited Romania in the early 1970s, Jimmy Carter hosted a visit of Ceausescu in 1978, and the United States looked at Romania as a potential ally due to its independence from the Soviet Union, relations with Israel, and willingness to engage in trade agreements with the west.  The suffering of the Romanian people and the restrictive abortion laws mattered very little to the two ruling parties of the United States.  This is because ultimately, U.S. economic and political interests as an imperialist power supersede principled concerns about the rights of women.  Lip service may be given to these concerns from time to time, but these concerns meet their horizon where US hegemony is challenged.


Our country’s hostility towards abortion has a global impact.  One example is the Global Gag rule, which began with Reagan and has been squarely supported by Republicans since.  Basically, it means that oversees organizations which receive U.S. aid cannot provide or promote abortion services.  I expect that if abortion became illegal in the United States, we would empower and expand restrictions elsewhere.  In terms of abortion, the worst offenders, of course, are Republicans, but at the heart of the issue is a shared, underlying view that the United States is exceptional, correct, important, and deserves a disproportionate place in shaping the history of the world and lives of the people of other countries.  The United States is not exceptional, or it is only exceptional in its atrocities, war mongering, genocide, racism, mass incarceration, and capacity for immiserating the world.  I believe that if abortion became illegal in the United States, the people of the world would help the oppressed women here.   In return, it is our duty to demolish U.S. power abroad.

Image result for jimmy carter ceausescu

Conclusion:

Illegal abortion seems like a nightmare, but in this nightmarish lens, it is always an Other.  It is an exotic, Eastern, communist dystopia that is distant from the United States on account of time, place, and political/economic system.  But, the challenges faced by Romanians are some of the same faced in the United States before abortion was illegal and which are faced today where abortion has not yet been legalized.  In Romania, the people rose up and killed their dictators.  In the United States, social movements also tirelessly worked to legalize abortion and contraceptives.  While women might not have the power  to “shut things down” when it comes to reproduction (to quote Todd Akin famous rape statement) there is always the power to shut society down through protest, strikes, and civil disobedience.   As challenging as it is, it is our best and only hope in rolling back the tide of attacks against reproductive rights.

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

Top 10 Reasons

Ten Reasons Why Travel Won’t Make You Better

H. Bradford

6/18/18

With the death of Anthony Bourdain, there have been many well meaning articles which encourage people to travel so that they can become better people.  This is a common theme in travel writing- the transformative power of travel. However, I am uncomfortable with this framing- especially the claim that travel makes you better.  Sometimes this claim is qualified by saying that it will make a person more adventurous, more comfortable with strangers, smarter, more flexible, more self aware, etc. I think this is a dangerous narrative, and that believing that travel makes a person better can actually make a person worse.  At the very least, it is a hollow, self-congratulatory platitude for those who have had the privilege of traveling. So, to buck the trend of “travel makes you better” here is a top ten list of how travel doesn’t make you better.


1.Better is Comparative

What is better?  Better is a comparative adjective.  Thus, to argue that travel makes someone “better” means that there is an unnamed subject that the traveler is better than.   Perhaps travel makes a person better than the person they were before they traveled. The comparison is between the past and present self.  More darkly, the comparison could be between the traveler and those who have not traveled. This is problematic because travel is a privilege, which will be addressed later.  While it may seem benign to suppose that travel makes an individual better than they were before they traveled, this argument concedes that the worth of a human being has something to do with how much they have traveled.  Am I a better person because I have traveled? No, the quality of my humanity is no better. I may be more knowledgeable about certain subjects, have some fond memories, or feel proud of confronting my fears but my overall “betterness” is non-existent.  I am no better than the human I was before I traveled and no better than any human who has not traveled.  Really, this vague notion of “better” is inherently hierarchical, as it divides humans (even as individuals) into better and lesser. The danger of this is that, once again, travel is a privilege that not everyone has access to.  It also assumes that travel is intrinsically good.

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Bulawayo, Zimbabwe


 

2. Better is Subjective

Most people who argue that travel makes you better are probably not intending to divide the world between better and lesser people.  The sloppy comparison is not meant to be harmful. It is just an example of the taken for granted expressions of common speech. When travel blogs argue that travel makes you “better” it is meant to express that travel improves a set of specific characteristics of an individual traveler.  For instance, a travel blog might argue that travel makes a person better at problem solving or better at talking to strangers. Arguably, travel can make someone better at some things. For example, a person who travels frequently may be better at navigating public transportation systems or packing a suitcase (of course, these very specific applications of “better” are not typical of the “travel makes you better arguments” ).  It seems reasonable that a person who packs suitcases often may gain skills in fitting objects into a small space and deciding what not to pack as a matter of experience. Compared to someone who does not pack suitcases, this seems true. However, “better” must still be operationalized. How does one measure the quality of betterness at packing suitcases? The volume of objects that are fit inside? The amount of time it takes to pack said objects?  If these were deemed the measures of “betterness,” travel is not the only act that creates the improvement of these skills, but rather the act of frequent packing that is associated with travel. A person could develop this skill as a hobby, as a competitive sport (the made up sport of timed packing contests), frequent moving, because of work travel, or maybe even playing Tetris. The big idea is that most uses of the word “better” are subjective. “Better” is not an objective measure (as in the packing example, where it is based upon time and volume) but rather personal opinions, emotions, norms, or less measurable qualities.  A person who travels may indeed be “better” at talking to strangers by some objective measures, but this is unlikely to be universally true or true only on account of the travel experience. Finally, the improvement of this skill is only subjectively important. Image may contain: sky, tree, mountain, nature and outdoor

Travel probably has made me “better” at packing and camping… but only marginally.


3.Better is Fleeting

Years ago, I spent a semester in South Korea, I studied Korean history and language.  When I returned to the United States, I maintained my interest in the country for a short time by taking a another Korean history class and reading books.  For a time, it could be said that I was “better” at Korean language and “better” at history (as compared to my pre-travel self and the average American who had not studied these things).  But with time, this knowledge has faded. While I am still more knowledgeable about topics related to Korea than I would have been had I never studied or traveled there, there are still plenty of things I never learned, will never know, and have long forgotten.  The disciplined study of of another language or a country’s history, art, popular culture, music, etc. is a lifelong pursuit that cannot be accomplished simply with a visit, no matter the length. Even becoming an expert in a subject area related to a specific country or area is an ongoing struggle to stay abreast of the latest research.  Without ongoing effort to learn more, question what is known, build upon existing knowledge, and make connections to other areas of knowledge…”better” is subject to entropy. Thus, while travel may make someone “better” in the sense they are more knowledgeable, this kind of better declines with time unless effort is made to maintain or improve upon the original set of knowledge.

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So many forgotten experiences…so much lost knowledge…


Some travel blogs argue that travel makes someone better, not in the area of knowledge, but in personality traits such as flexibility, problem solving, interpersonal skills, etc.  I imagine that these areas are more variable in their decline. A person who learned to problem solve while traveling may have gained a lifelong skill, or, perhaps in other contexts, that same person could become rigid.  On the other hand, some of these traits might grow better with time, irrespective of travel. I imagine that the average person who must work and interact with people would over time improve their interpersonal skills simply as a matter of surviving in a society wherein some level of interpersonal skills are required for maintaining a job, maintaining friendships, and navigating social interactions to meet basic needs like food and shelter.  In any event, whatever “better” is, ultimately it is illusive, temporary, and contextual.


 

4. Better Rarely Matters

Suppose travel does make a person better in some ways.  I think that my geography skills are probably better than they might be had I never traveled (though my studious roommates who do not internationally travel are much better at geography than I am AND my comrade who has a P.h.d in GIS is infinitely better at geography than I am).  So what? Why does it matter? Why does it matter that I might be better than average at geography or alternatively worse than others at it? My worth as a human being is not dependent upon my geography skills. Knowing geography is useful in some contexts (such as teaching geography, current event literacy, or trivia), but the masses of the world do not live or die by my knowledge of geography.  The masses of the world live and die in poverty, by preventable disease, by the wars inflicted by my own country, and the legacies of colonization exasperated by the inequalities of global capitalism. My knowledge of geography is important only inasmuch as it can be used to understand and dismantle systems of power. Can travel offer insights that can work towards this end? Of course. It can connect people to others, be a tool of solidarity and collaboration, can mobilize others towards common causes, or be a source of education on injustices.  This matters, but only because I value the advancement of social struggle. Travel that makes a person a “better” activist in terms of their effectiveness in advancing struggle certainly has value. Travel that connects and fuels social movements has value. But, almost all of my travel is for pleasure, education, and self-fulfillment. Whatever I gain in the interest of these things, even if I personally become “better”- means little to the rest of the world…which traveling should teach is often entrenched in poverty. What does it matter if I become better at talking to strangers, packing a suitcase, navigating public transportation, or gain the sense I am a more whole person?  What does it matter if I become more knowledgeable about a country’s history or culture? What does better matter unless it is a means to an end? The end of self betterment is not globally liberating. The end of fond memories or confronting fear will not ensure a more just world. Becoming a “better” person simply doesn’t matter. We all die. So the goal of becoming a better person for its own sake is a dead end. Becoming a “better” person…in the interest of becoming a more useful and effective member of movements for social change expands the self beyond an individual life or needs. Of course, this is also draining, disappointing, and doesn’t make for great Instagram photos.  I am not selfless and tireless enough to only travel in the interest of building social change. So, what does my “better” matter, if not for those things? What does anyone’s “better” matter, if not for those things? And, since travel is not required to become better at the things that truly matter (as much as anything matters in the indifferent universe), does travel matter?

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Some of my knowledge from travel is useful when I play trivia with friends


5.Travel is a Privilege:

 

A major problem with the notion that travel makes you better is that not everyone can travel.   80% of the world lives on less than $10 a day. For most of the world, international travel is not an option because it is simply too expensive.  This means that travel is mostly a source of “betterment” to people from wealthier countries (i.e. often those with colonial histories which enabled earlier economic development at the expense of exploited colonies).  Within wealthier countries where more people may have the leisure time and resources to travel, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other sources of social inequality limits who is able to travel and who is not.  I have certainly seen many Australians traveling in Europe, but I would be hard pressed to find an aboriginal Australian among them. This isn’t to argue that aboriginal Australians never travel, but since 19% of the population lived in poverty (in 2014), it would be harder for many of them to afford travel.  16% of Americans live in poverty, but 27% of African Americans live in poverty and 26% of Hispanics. Larger segments of racial minority populations simply cannot to travel on account of poverty, not to mention other barriers such as incarceration or safety issues. 12% of Americans have disabilities. While having a disability does not mean that a person cannot travel, depending on the disability, it could create barriers or restrictions to travel.  Travel safety is also an issue. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, etc. travelers may be restricted in where they can visit to do fear of repression, hate crimes, incarceration, etc. Travel is far easier if you have money, are cisgender male, straight, white, healthy, young, and child free. Of course, there are plenty of people who are not these things and who travel. Still, 63% of Americans have never been outside the country. It is easy to think that Americans are ignorant, xenophobic bumpkins.  In a survey (conducted by a luggage company), 76% of respondents said they wanted to travel but it wasn’t financially possible and 25% said they lacked the time. Only 10% responded that they had no interest. The bottom line is that most people in the world cannot afford to travel or have social barriers to travel. It seems unfair to rate some people as “better” for doing something that is out of the reach of so many more.

https://nypost.com/2018/01/11/a-shocking-number-of-americans-never-leave-home/

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A street in Bridgetown, Barbados

 


 

 6.  Not Wanting to Travel is Okay

One of the myths behind travel is that it will open up the world, transforming the traveler into someone who is no longer closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, provincial, etc.  This implies that people who do not travel are closed minded, ignorant, prejudiced, and so on. Now, I certainly want people to look at the world beyond borders. I want people to think against our foreign policy and national interests.  I agree that society would be better if there was less racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, and all the other “isms.” But, a person does not have to travel to be an open minded internationalist who wants to end social inequalities.  Travel is not the only means nor the best means to become open minded and globally aware. There are plenty of travelers who travel with their prejudices and ignorance. There are plenty of travelers who change very little after their experience. Travel is not the magic key to betterment.


Most of my friends do not travel.  Yet, all of my friends are aware of the world and committed to social justice.  Some of my friends do not travel due to income, lack of vacation time, health, criminal background, and other barriers.  I have one friend who adamantly says he does not want to travel. Is there anything wrong with this? Why would there be?  Not everyone wants to travel, just as not everyone wants to plant a garden, watch birds, go for long hikes, collect stamps, go to sporting events, attend concerts, scuba dive, or any number of other activities.  Not wanting to travel doesn’t make someone “bad” or stupid, or closed minded, or inferior. It is simply a matter of preference. A person can prefer not to travel, but still have a deep interest in learning about the world and still have a strong commitment to changing social injustices.  Just as a person can travel and be entirely indifferent to social injustice and blind to privilege. There are many ways to learn about the world. Formal education, self-education, employment, community engagement, volunteering, activism, hobbies, etc. can connect individuals to people who are different from themselves and broaden the mind to social justice issues.


7. Travel Can Be Unethical

There are many unethical aspects to travel.  Firstly, travel requires transportation- which generally means using more fossil fuels than one would use if they just stayed home.  Travel can also be a source of waste. For instance, the airline industry produces 5.2 million tons of waste each year in the form of such things as empty bottles, uneaten meals, packaging, etc.  https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/airlines-cabin-waste/index.html


Many countries lack waste management systems, so even if a person wants to recycle or compost, there is a lack of infrastructure to support this, much less the more basic service of garbage collection.  I have certainly littered when in other countries simply because proper trash disposal was nowhere to be found. Increased travel to natural areas can impact plant and animal populations and increased travel anywhere creates more demand for tourist supporting infrastructure such as roads, hotels, stores, and restaurants (which can result in loss of human neighborhoods or natural habitats depending upon where these are built). Travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their environmental impact. Image may contain: mountain, sky, outdoor, water and nature

An underground landfill fire in Grenada- indicating a waste management problem


Travel changes economies.  With the decline of industry in my own region, the economy has shifted more towards tourism.  The impact of this has been the expansion of lower paying, non-union, service industry jobs with higher turnover and greater sensitivity to economic downturn.  Of course, workers can always fight back for higher wages, better conditions, and unions- which has been happening in the service economy, but this takes time and organization.  On a global scale, catering to the tastes of tourists can mean a homogenization or Disneyfication of culture, shift in labor from subsistence to tourist economies or from production to service economies, marketization of culture and environments, privatization of resources, and dependency on tourism (which is a variable source of income), increased reliance on imports (as the economy shifts from producing things to services or to meet the needs of tourists) etc.


At the same time, economies change and tourism fills the gap of industries which once were (but are no longer profitable).  It is very hard for island countries to maintain a global, “competitive advantage” due to trade laws, transportation costs, lack of land, lack of money for capital investment, etc.  For instance, it would be very hard for many Pacific Island countries to be major exporters of produce, since the islands are far from each other, often small, and far away from global markets.  Because of colonization and globalization, subsistence ways of life have been disrupted. Tourism is a way to generate some income and create some jobs. Tourism isn’t necessarily evil and may have the positive impact of injecting money into these economies.  However, the plight of these countries is a complicated mix of colonization, current trade practices, climate change, and tourism. A well meaning tourist can attempt to patronize local businesses or engage in ecotourism, but the global economy is set-up to prohibit the development of some countries and continue the dependency of poorer countries on wealthier ones.  Travel is an aspect of this dependency and the consumption practices of a single traveler, no matter how well meaning, cannot alter the nature of global capitalism. Thus, travel does not make a person “better” in terms of their role in the global economy.


8. Travel is Made Possible by Imperialism

From a socialist perspective, imperialism is a stage of capitalism wherein due to declining profits, developed economies look to perpetuate capitalism and avoid crisis by expanding trade into global markets, integrating more workers into their economies, and by destroying economic competitors.  This is the motor behind globalization. As a U.S. citizen, I have found that ease of travel often correlates with degree of integration within the global economy and acceptance of the United States foreign policy. For instance, travel to North Korea is currently banned for most Americans (by our own government), Cuba was historically a place U.S. citizens were banned from traveling to due to our trade embargo, and American travel to Iran was briefly banned last year after the U.S. travel ban.  Ease of travel is a function of U.S. imperialism (but also imperialism in general). For instance, in countries like Belarus and Turkmenistan, I was unable to use my ATM card. This seems like a minor inconvenience, but generally, this also means that these countries are not well integrated into the global banking system. On the other hand, some countries literally use U.S. dollars. All U.S. “territories” (i.e. modern colonies) use US dollars, including Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  Zimbabwe also uses U.S. dollars. For countries which don’t, I never have any issue converting my money, since it is widely accepted as a matter of our position in the global economy. The same cannot be said for someone carrying Albanian lek, who would be hard pressed to convert their money due to its obscurity and relative lack of value. In most countries I have traveled to, I have been able to find English speakers. Again, this is a matter of both American and British imperialism- which has spread the English language around the world and made it a language of economic and political importance.  Likewise, Spanish and French are also used due to the history of colonialism and imperialism. Infrastructure which today supports tourists, such as ports, airports, and roads, were often built by colonial powers in the interest of extracting resources from these countries or to support military interests (an extension of imperialism). For example, Kinshasa airport was first built by the Belgians, Cairo International airport was first used as an airfield by the U.S. during World War II, Ahmed Ben Bella airport in Algeria was first used by the French in WWII as an airfield, etc. This isn’t to argue that countries do not build their infrastructure on their own, independent of imperialism, but that imperialism has shaped the globe, making it far easier for me to travel than someone from a country that was never a world power.  Can I really argue that travel makes me “better” when my ability to travel has been lubricated by imperialism?

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(In North Korea in 2010)


9. Travel Has No Intrinsic Value

The nature of value is complicated, since the word value is used in a variety of ways.  In a Marxist sense, something has use value if it has “usefulness” or utility and exchange value if it can be expressed in price or traded as a commodity.  Travel is a set of experiences, but not a singular entity or commodity. It may be many commodities which are consumed in the process of travel. In this sense, to my best understanding, travel does not have use value or exchange value, though aspects of travel may possess these things.  Travel can be broken down into meals, hotel stays, flights, bus tickets, tours, and so on, which have exchange value. But, this is a very mechanistic view of what value means.


When most people talk about the value of travel, they are referring not to the economic value, but the value of memories and experiences.   Of course, on an individual level, these things have value. The problem is that some people idealize this value above other experiences. Is the value of travel greater than the value of other things?  It is tempting for some travelers to revel in the freedom of travel and to frame it as superior to such things as working 9-5, having children, settling down, staying in one place, forming routines, being tied down by responsibilities, and so on.  Does travel have more value than working? Well, travel is often a lot more fun than working. But, is the value of fun greater than the value of work? What is the value of work (not in the Marxist sense) but the everyday, more generic sense? I work at a domestic violence shelter, as a substitute teacher, and at a women’s health clinic.  Reproductive health is a heck of a lot more important than having fun! Access to abortion and other reproductive health care is fundamental to the equality of women (or anyone with the capacity of becoming pregnant). If everyone who worked in this field suddenly decided to take prolonged vacations, resulting in the shutdown of reproductive health services (this is an unrealistic scenario)  society would be worse off. My own work in this area is minimal and part time, so it is important not to overstate my own contribution to this area. The main point is that travel is often framed as better than work, but work has a lot of value. My full time job is at a domestic violence shelter- it is hard to imagine that travel, which is done for fun and selfish reasons, is of a higher importance or value.  Travel is important to me, but the social value of sheltering survivors/victims of domestic violence is greater than the value of travel. Leisure travel does not address a social problem or meet a social need. Image may contain: text


I don’t wish to overstate the importance of work, since work can be draining, stressful, exploitative, a source of struggle, and necessity for survival.  Because work is alienating and exploitative, escape from work through travel is idealized. But, escape from work does not improve labor conditions or improve the lot of working people.  It does not alter the conditions of work. Still, people SHOULD work less. There should be more vacation time and more time to pursue anything which broadens the human experience, including travel, hobbies, community engagement, relationship building, education, etc.  Yes, travel is one of the things that can enrich the human experience. But, so can having children, building meaningful relationships, connecting with a community, planting gardens, going for hikes, or any number of experiences. Work also has the potential to enrich the human experience, but to do so, it must be liberated from capitalist exploitation.


 

10. Travel Can Make You Worse

Finally, there is no rule that travel will make you better (whatever that is).  Travel can make a person worse. By worse, I mean, it can give a person a sense of inflated importance.  It can make someone believe that they are more knowledgeable or have lived a superior lifestyle. Like the character in Rocky and Bullwinkle, who prattled on about his marvelous adventurous, it can make a person a egotistical, elitist, and out of touch.  Look at me! I’ve been there! I’ve done that! I know all about that! I know the best place to stay! I know the best deals! Of course, I fall victim to this as well, since I often write about travel- pretending that I have some important knowledge or insight to pass on.  Well, I am doing that right now- passing on the insight that travel does not make you better! Image result for commander mcbragg


Travel can make you “worse” in other ways.  Travel can be tiring, stressful, socially exhausting, confusing, make people sick, costly, dangerous, frustrating, disappointing, etc.  The toll of the challenges of travel can bring out the worst characteristics in some travelers. I myself have become withdrawn, anxious, depressed, fatigued, frustrated, judgemental, etc. while traveling.  I can hardly say I am my best self when faced with challenges and new situations. I have certainly observed other travelers melt down or engage in maladaptive behaviors to combat or mute the stress of travel.  Excessive eating, drinking, and spending are some ways that others might cope with the hardships of travel. Drinking too much is especially common. While there might be some awesome, cool, well-adapted, roll-with-the punches travelers out there, there are probably many more than have yelled at hotel staff or looked at difference with disgust.


In a material sense, travel can make you worse.  When I spend money on travel, it means that I am not spending money on other things.  I am going to be far worse off in my retirement years because I spent money on travel rather than saving for old age.  I am not building my savings for a rainy day or unforeseen catastrophe. Travel is not the most prudent thing to spend money on.  However, I value the experiences so I continue to spend money on them.


Travel can make a person’s health worse.  I have been fortunate that I have never become majorly ill from travel, but travel does expose people to diseases that they might not otherwise encounter.  I have almost zero risk of contracting malaria or yellow fever if I just stay home…


 

Conclusion:

 

This may seem rather negative, but I really feel that travel does not make you “better” just as formal education does not make you “better”, having a professional career does not make you “better,” or any number of other things makes a person better.  I enjoy travel, but it does not make me better. In some ways, it makes me worse than others. I would love to travel more than I do. I encourage others to travel. I admire those who travel. However, I don’t know that it is the path to betterment or that such a pursuit is even a worthy goal.  What is betterment outside of comparison, hierarchy, or elitism? In what ways does “better” concede to an economy that makes money by making us believe that we need to be more than what we are? Of course, at some basic level I want to improve upon myself, grow, change, and experience new things.  But does accomplishing this make me better than others or better than my past self? At the core of these sorts of questions is the bigger question of what is meaningful in a world where everything dies or changes, where life is short and harsh for many, and never fully realized by the vast majority of us.  Through the prism of pain and dying, the “best” among us are those who work the hardest to make the suffering in the world less and work to build a world wherein more people can explore their full humanity. Travel can sometimes support this goal, but for me, it tends to be a diversion.

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Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

Moths Matter

Why Moths Matter and How to Attract Them to Your Garden

H. Bradford

6/15/18

Last week I had the odd idea that I wanted to attract moths to my garden.  The idea is only odd because usually gardeners want to rid moths from the garden.  Even though it is actually a butterfly, the cabbage moth (cabbage white butterfly or small white (pieris rapae)) is the scourge of vegetable growers.  Cutworms generally grow into a variety of species of moths.  Tent caterpillars and gypsy moths defoliate trees. Moths get a bad wrap-taking blame for some of the damage done by their more colorful kin.  But, moths are useful in a number of ways. For one, they are important pollinators of the night shift. As a night shift worker myself, I can celebrate the work of these nocturnal comrades.  Moths create silky cocoons, unlike butterflies, which create chrysalis. Humans have benefited by turning the cocoons of silk moths into a textile. Finally, moths are also a source of food for humans, such as the mopane caterpillars which are farmed and eaten in parts of southern Africa.  Aside from human consumption, moths are food for bats, toads, small animals (Larum, 2018) as well as owls, flying squirrels, song birds, tree frogs (“The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths”, 2017).  While there are many reasons why moths are important, the main reasons why a gardener might want to attract moths to their garden is for pollination, food to other garden critters, and as a celebration of their nocturnal beauty.

((Edit Note: the heading image for this post features three moth stock images from canva.  I believe the top one may not be a moth since it is not holding its wings flat.  I did not catch this when I created the image))

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(image from Butterfly Conservation.org)


Both moths and butterflies belong to the order of insects called Lepidoptera, though moths tend to be characterized by such things as being nocturnal, holding their wings flat, and making silky cocoons.  Recent research suggests that moths and butterflies have been around for over 200 million years, appearing before the first flowering plants. Traditionally, pollinators were believed to have evolved with flowering plants.  However, the discovery of fossilized wing scales has pushed the existence of moths and butterflies back into history from 130 million years to over 200 million. They were first found in the Triassic Period, which is also when the first dinosaurs also appeared.  Early butterflies and moths are believed to have looked more like moths with drab colors. More colorful butterflies only evolved after the extinction of dinosaurs (Osterath, 2018). So, while moths may not get the same attention as butterflies, their characteristics reach deeper back into history.  Today, they out number butterflies 10 to 1. In the United States alone, there are 11,000 species of moths. They outnumber birds and mammal species of North America combined (Konkel, 2012). Image result for moth fossil


Planting for Pollinating Moths:

As I mentioned earlier, moths are overlooked pollinators.  Most studies regarding pollinators focus on diurnal pollinators like bees and butterflies.  Pollinating moths do so when visiting a plant for nectar, which is used for energy, but some pollinate when visiting a plant to lay eggs.  Many plants are pollinated by both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators. Research conducted on 289 species of plants which are pollinated exclusively or partially by moths, representing 75 taxa of plants found that moths are specifically helpful as pollinators because they travel further, have higher quality pollination, and greater interpopulation gene flow (Konkel, 2012). A study of moths in a Portuguese meadow showed that 76% of the moths that were captured carried pollen on them.  One third of the moths had pollen from five or more plant species (Banza, Belo, and Evans 2015). Moths lack jaws, so they only drink nectar. Because moths don’t groom away or eat the pollen, they move more pollen from plants than pollinators that do (Tartaglia, 2015). Thus, moths are useful pollinators because they visit many plants, travel long distances, and don’t eat pollen.

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White lined sphinx moth from http://www.nhptv.org/wild/sphingida.asp


Most moths are generalists, meaning they don’t require a specific plant to feed their larvae or to draw nectar from.  However, there are a few plants such as Western prairie fringed orchid and senita cacti which depend exclusively on moths for pollination (Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo, Schweitzer, and Sears, 2017).  Western prairie fringed orchid is a wildflower found in the Midwest, including Minnesota. The orchid is endangered in Minnesota and federally listed as threatened. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, it is pollinated by “bedstraw hawk moth (Hyles gallii), the wild cherry sphinx (Sphinx drupiferarum), the Achemon sphinx (Eumorpha achemon), and the non-native spurge hawk moth (Hyles euphorbiae).” (https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/rsg/profile.html?action=elementDetail&selectedElement=PMORC1Y0S0)   It would be impractical, difficult, and sometimes illegal (depending upon how the plant was obtained) to grow this particular orchid,  however a gardener could grow plants which support the pollinating moth populations. For instance, wild cherry sphinx moth larvae are hosted on wild cherry, plum, apple, lilac, and hackberry bushes.  Adults feed on the nectar of deep throated flowers such as Japanese honeysuckle (Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum, 2018). Achemon sphinx moth caterpillars enjoy grape plants and adults feed on the nectar of Japanese honeysuckle, petunias, and phlox (Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon, 2017).  Both species are said to like Japanese honeysuckle in particular, which is non-Native plant available at nurseries. Perhaps because the flowers are white, tubular, and fragrant it is a favorite for those moths. Image result for japanese honeysuckle

Japanese Honeysuckle image from Colombia University


Senita cactus and yucca plants are also pollinated exclusively by moths.  If a gardener happens to live in an area which supports yucca or cacti, growing these to attract moths might be a novel idea.  However, Minnesota is not within the range of the yucca moth. There are some yucca varieties which may be cold hardy to zone five, but since the plant is only pollinated by yucca moths it doesn’t make much sense to plant them outside the range of the moth.  Since most moths are generalists, there are plenty of other plants that can attract them to the garden. It is often suggested that gardeners plant pale colored flowers so that moths can see them at night. Though I am not sure if this is scientifically proven, and may be more useful in helping humans see both the moths and flowers in the dark.  It is also often advised that moth attracting flowers should be fragrant at night. Moth attracting flowers include dianthus, red valerian, campion, soapwort, wild honeysuckle, Sweet William, evening primrose, clematis, and flowering tobacco (Carlton, 2015) Heather, lavender, jasmine, mandevilla, madonna lily, phlox, heliotrope, gardenian, butterfly bush, and spider flower are also popular with moths (Miller, 2009)  In Minnesota, four-o-clocks, petunia, fireweed, dwarf blue gentian, dame’s rocket, madonna lily, scarlet bergamot, common bergamot, and weigelia can be grown to attract adult moths and were rated as excellent by Carol Henderson for attracting wildlife (Krischik, 2013).

Image result for moth and flower

Tobacco hornworm moth from https://phys.org/news/2009-03-moths-key-scent.html


Although it may seem unconventional, reserving some vegetables for moths or larvae, also would draw moths to the garden.  For instance, tomato hornworms grown into attractive, Five spotted hawk moths (Moth Pollination, n.d.). Hawk moths pollinate tubular plants like honeysuckle, datura, brugmansias. (Thompson, 2015).  They belong to the family Sphingidae, which also includes include sphinx moths. Larger species of these moths, such as the white lined sphinx moth, are sometimes mistaken for hummingbirds, and like hummingbirds they are active in the day (or at least some are) and like large, nectar filled blooms.  As a general rule, flowers that butterflies like tend to also be liked by moths. Light colored, tubular, fragrant, night blooming flowers are also attractive to moths and make for a nice night garden.


Beautiful Moths:

Image result for luna moth

Luna moth from https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Actias-luna

In addition to attracting adult moths, gardeners can consider attracting moth caterpillars to their garden.  For instance, one of the most stunning moths of Minnesota is the pistachio green Luna moth.  However, Luna moths are among the moths that lack functioning mouths.  Thus, a gardener must consider the needs of caterpillars, which eat the leaves of American beech, willow, White oak, Black cherry, black walnut, red maple, sumac, and other nut and fruit bearing trees (Medina, 2012).  The Polyphemus moth is another stunning moth, and like the Luna moth, it is the Saturnidae family.  This family consists of some of the largest moths in the world, including the Atlas moth of Asia, with a wingspan of up to almost 12 inches across.  One of the largest North American moth is the Royal Walnut moth, which has a wingspan of 4.5 inches and is once again, a member of the Saturniidae family (Konkel, 2012).  These moths are more commonly found in the Southern United States, and as the name suggests, the caterpillars feed on walnut and hickory foliage. Since these non-feeding moths live short lives as adults and do not visit flowers, they are not major pollinators.  However, they are large, beautiful moths often with patterned markings including eye spots. Their caterpillars can also be quite large and remarkable. Planting with these moths in mind is more for beauty than function. Rather than planting vegetables or flowers, planting trees or shrubs would attract these moths.  For instance, in Minnesota, the four inch Cercropia moth caterpillar feeds on cherry, linden, maple, boxelder, elm, oak, birch, willow, hawthorn, and poplar leaves. The moth can have a wingspan of up to six inches or more and it has a bright white and red stripe and eyespot (Cercopia Moth, n.d.). The smaller but also striking three and a half inch, polyphemus moth caterpillar eats the leaves of “ash, birch, maple, oak, and willow. It has also been known to eat grape leaves”  (Hahn, 2005). For those who live in warmer regions and feel like trying an interesting hobby or agricultural endeavor, a gardener could attempt to raise silkworms, which once again, are part of the Saturnidae family.  Silkworm larvae feed exclusively on mulberry leaves.  Minnesota is at the edge of the range of red mulberries, but perhaps due to climate change the tree will expand its range.  Mulberries themselves are attractive trees with bountiful, edible berries. Recently, some red mulberry trees were found growing in Southern Minnesota, but they had otherwise not been documented in the state since 1920 (Thayer, 2017).   In short, a “moth garden” might include trees or shrubs that are attractive to the bold and beautiful Saturnidae family.

Image result for polyphemus moth

Polyphemus moth from http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/MISC/MOTHS/polyphemus_moth.htm


 

Lighting the Way:

Some online resources for attracting moths to a garden or yard suggest turning on a yard light.  Anyone who has left a porch light on, knows that this draws moths in. However, I am not sure if this is the best way to attract moths to a garden.  Light pollution may actually contribute to the decline of moths. Moths are attracted to shorter wavelength light, with variation across species and between sexes.  For example, male moths are more attracted to light traps than females. Lights that produce heat can kill or harm moths. Artificial lights impact how females lay eggs, sometimes suppressing egg layings, altering where eggs are laid, or resulting in hyper egg laying.  Lights can also confuse moth’s navigation, their eyesight, and delay nocturnal activity. Artificial lights can give advantages to some moth predators and can hinder a moth’s ability to evade bats (Macgregor, Pocock, Fox, and Evans, 2014). For instance, the tiger moth uses clicking noises to evade the sonar of bats (Konkel, 2012).  One theory is that moths are confused by the light, so they behave as if it is day and bats are not around. Light also disrupts the reproduction of moths, as light disrupts female production of pheromones and male moths become distracted from following pheromone trails. When moths reproduce, artificial light impacts the size of caterpillars, causing them to be smaller (Macgregor, 2017). Image result for moths and light

image from http://animalia-life.club/other/moths-flying-around-light.html


Because moths evolved to be active in the dark, they do not require much light to find their way.  Moths actually have evolved a keen sense of smell and can follow the scent of a flower several kilometers (Tartaglia, 2015).  A male giant silkworm moths can smell a female from up to seven miles away (Konkel, 2012). Moths do not smell with nostrils, but with their antennae (Tartaglia, 2015).  While scientists often use light to attract moths for studies and perhaps turning the lights on from time to time to get a better peek at moths is probably alright, using lights, or at least short wavelength lights is probably not very helpful to moths.   If a gardener wants to create a night garden for human enjoyment rather than moths, perhaps dim solar lights or glow in the dark garden art would be less disruptive. An even safer idea is to observe moths using red filtered light or to attract moths using smells rather than light.  If a person does choose to have yard lights, avoiding blue light (which is more attractive to moths) and turning out lights or putting them on a timer can reduce the negative impact of light pollution. Finally, some moths can be attracted to the yard with smells rather than light and there are several recipes of how to create moth solutions (Macgregor, 2017).  One recipe calls for 454 grams of black treacle, 1 kg of brown sugar, 500 ml of brown ale, and a paintbrush. After simmering the ale for five minutes, add the brown sugar and treacle, stirring and dissolving, then letting simmer for two more minutes. Once the mixture has cooled, it can be painted onto trees or fence posts, avoiding moss and lichen. Another recipe calls for mixing a bottle of wine with 1 kg of sugar, dissolving the sugar into the wine over heat.  This mixture can be applied to cloth or ropes, which can be hung from trees or posts to attract moths (Butterfly Conservation, 2015). Recipes for moth sugaring or wine ropes can be flexible, using whatever is on hand, including old fruit such as bananas, various sorts of alcohol, sugar, molasses, maple syrup, etc. The mixture should be thick and paste like and can be applied to trees or rope (Moskowitz, 2011).

Image result for moth wine rope

image from UNC Charlotte Urban Institute


 

Moth Conservation:

All pollinating insects have been in decline over recent decades, and with them, the plants that they pollinate.  In Britain, ⅔ of the species of larger moths have declined over the last 40 years. Like diurnal pollinators, nocturnal pollinators like moths are challenged by climate change, use of agro chemicals, and habitat fragmentation (Konkel, 2012).  In the United States, the decline of some moths can also be attributed to the introduction of the parasitoid fly between 1906–1986 to control gypsy moths. Compsilura concinnata did little to control gypsy moth populations and attacks 200 other species of moths and butterflies.  Hawk moths are on of them. IIn a study by Young, Auer, Ormes, Rapacciuolo , Schweitzer , Sears (2017)  one third of the species of hawk moth’s studied had declined between 1900-2012, while four species increased.  Control of two of the moths as pests may have contributed to some decline in addition to the introduction of the parasitic fly.


Gardeners can support moth populations by planting trees, vegetables, and flowers that host their larvae or provide nectar to adults.  Being mindful of light pollution is another way to help moths. Gardeners can also avoid pesticides. Even natural pesticides can be harmful to moths.  Bacillus thuringiensis is toxic to larvae of both butterflies and moths (Miller, 2009). Gardeners can also get involved with National Moth Week, which is held the last week of July.  During the week, participants can join citizen science projects to identify and count local moth populations. Participants can also host events and submit their findings to the National Moth Week website (National Moth Week, n.d.).  Of course, these are mostly small scale, individual, feel good activities. To really protect moths, and all of the life on the planet, individuals must move away from backyard solutions to building social movements against climate change, the profit driven waste and destruction of industrial agriculture within capitalism, and the exploitative relationship to nature that the profit system both encourages and cannot escape.  Environmental movements that mobilize all segments of society towards the overhaul of our economic system and which are given weight by the power of workers and the connections to other mass movements are the only way to challenge the large scale destruction of capitalism.  Thus, while planting white flowers and learning more about moths can be a wonderful hobby, it is no substitute for the structural changes necessary for protecting habitats, changing agricultural practices while ensuring an end to poverty and hunger, and thwarting climate change.  Historically, the example of the Peppered moth illustrated the impact of industrialization on the environment.  I think then that aside from being a night pollinator, moths are a symbol of capitalism.

Image result for peppered moth

Peppered moth image from https://askabiologist.asu.edu/peppered-moths-game/kettlewell.html


 

Conclusion:

Moths are really fascinating.  I have already begun planting with moths in mind and will be on the lookout for these overlooked garden visitors.  Perhaps I’ll even try to participate in National Moth Week this July. Moths are important pollinators, far more plentiful than butterflies, some of the largest insects, misunderstood and under studied, and both economically destructive and important.  At the same time, there are imperiled by habitat loss, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change. I am convinced that moths matter and are worth learning more about it. One of the tragedies of life is that most of the life around us remains anonymous, unknown and unseen.  I lack the time and discipline to uncover the nature of the hidden world around me. In the night, there is a world of moths (among many other creatures). Some lack mouths and live a short time. My senses are muted by capitalism and my own life is too short to learn and do all that I wish to.   Life is truncated by labor and confined by the resources of class. I like moths though. They are night workers like me.

Sources:

Achemon sphinx Eumorpha achemon (Drury, 1773). (2017, July 30). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Eumorpha-achemon

 

Banza, P., Belo, A. D., & Evans, D. M. (2015). The structure and robustness of nocturnal Lepidopteran pollen‐transfer networks in a Biodiversity Hotspot. Insect Conservation and Diversity, 8(6), 538-546.

 

Butterfly Conservation. (2015, September 15). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://butterfly-conservation.org/3114-10110/a-recipe-for-moths-sugaring–wine-roping.html

 

Carlton, M. (2015, September). Flowers for Moths [PDF].  http://www.foxleas.com/uploads/files/Moth%20Flowers%202015.pdf

 

Cecropia moth. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from http://minnesotaseasons.com/Insects/cecropia_moth.html

 

Hahn, J. (2000, August 15). It’s a hummingbird, it’s a moth, it’s a what? Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/its-a-hummingbird-its-a-moth-its-a-what/

 

Hahn, J. (2005, August 15). Giant silk moth caterpillars. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/insects/find/giant-silk-moth-caterpillars/

 

Konkel, L. (2012, July 27). 7 Things You Don’t Know About Moths, But Should. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.livescience.com/21933-moth-week-facts.html

 

Krischik, V. (2013). Butterfly and moth garden plants. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.extension.umn.edu/garden/yard-garden/landscaping/butterfly-gardening/butterfly-and-moth-garden-plants/

Larum, D. (2018, April 04). Moth Gardening Information ? What Plants Attract Moths To The Garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/beneficial/attracting-moths-to-gardens.htm

Macgregor, C. J., Pocock, M. J., Fox, R., & Evans, D. M. (2014). Pollination by nocturnal Lepidoptera, and the effects of light pollution: A review. Ecological Entomology, 40(3), 187-198. doi:10.1111/een.12174

 

Macgregor, C. J., Evans, D. M., Fox, R., & Pocock, M. J. (2017). The dark side of street lighting: impacts on moths and evidence for the disruption of nocturnal pollen transport. Global change biology, 23(2), 697-707.

 

Macgregor, C. (2017, July 17). Like moths to a flame: National Moth Week, and how you can help our nighttime wildlife. Retrieved from http://darksky.org/like-moths-to-a-flame-national-moth-week-and-how-you-can-help-our-nighttime-wildlife/

 

Medina, M. (2012, May 20). The Gardener’s Eden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from http://www.thegardenerseden.com/?p=26162

 

Miller, S. (2009, June 21). Pollinators on second shift: Moths. Retrieved from https://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/view/2510

 

Moth Pollination. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/animals/moths.shtml

 

Moths of Minnesota. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from http://www.welchproperty.com/cannon/mothsof.htm

 

Moskowitz, D. (2011, December 28). Sugar Baits for Moths: Winter Fun. Retrieved from http://nationalmothweek.org/2011/12/28/sugar-baits-for-moths-winter-fun/

 

National Moth Week. (n.d.). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from http://nationalmothweek.org

 

Osterath, B. (2018, January 11). Rethinking evolution: Butterflies came first, flowers came second | DW | 11.01.2018. Retrieved from http://www.dw.com/en/rethinking-evolution-butterflies-came-first-flowers-came-second/a-42110188

 

The Xerces Society » Blog Archive » Gardening For Moths. (2017, July 21). Retrieved from https://xerces.org/2017/07/21/gardening-for-moths/

 

Tartaglia, E. (2015, June 25). The Year of the Sphingidae – Pollination. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from http://nationalmothweek.org/2015/06/25/the-year-of-the-sphingidae-pollination/

 

Thayer, S. (2017, May/June). The Rarest Tree | Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/issues/2017/may-jun/red-mulberry.html

 

Thompson, K. (2015, July 21). Forget butterflies – it’s moths you need to entice to the garden. Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/gardeningadvice/11744830/Forget-butterflies-its-moths-you-need-to-entice-to-the-garden.html

 

Wild cherry sphinx Sphinx drupiferarum J.E. Smith, 1797. (2018). Retrieved June 15, 2018, from https://www.butterfliesandmoths.org/species/Sphinx-drupiferarum

 

Young B, Auer S, Ormes M, Rapacciuolo G, Schweitzer D, Sears N (2017) Are pollinating hawk moths declining in the Northeastern United States? An analysis of collection records. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0185683. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0185683

Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford

6/4/18

Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).


Wandering Jew:


If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has


With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.


Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

Image result for collard green


While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from Foodnetwork.com

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.


Nyjer Seed:


Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.


Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

Image result for niger seed

Image from The Zen Birdfeeder

 

Kaffir Lime:


About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:


While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia

Conclusion:

There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.


Sources on Wandering Jew:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49614212_Creating_National_Identity_through_a_Legend_-The_Case_of_the_Wandering_Jew

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history

https://sputniknews.com/art_living/201709151057426161-sweden-anti-semitic-plans/
https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/anti-semitism/medieval-anti-judaism/who-and-where-were-medieval-jews/

https://www.history.com/topics/anti-semitism
Sources on Collard Greens:

 

http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/kale-compared-to-other-vegetables_n_3762721.html
https://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/13531214/?ref_id=13531197

http://www.crossroadsnews.com/news/lithonia-festival-is-all-about-the-collards/article_68af27d0-9968-11e7-a979-17d10f0b5b05.html

http://www.ebony.com/life/hungry-for-history-collards

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/01/25/humble-hardy-leaf-defines-national-character/ideas/essay/

http://www.latibahcgmuseum.org/why-collard-greens/

https://weblogtheworld.com/formats/featured/history-of-collard-greens-extends-far-beyond-north-america

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/whats-leafy-and-green-and-eaten-by-blacks-and-whites/424554/

http://abc7chicago.com/food/neiman-marcus-sells-out-of-$66-collard-greens/1589488/

https://www.trulytafakari.com/ate-white-peoples-collard-greens-tasted-like-oppression/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/09/5-foods-from-africa/

http://meloukhia.net/2014/06/hipsterisation_and_its_hiked-up_prices_kale_quinoa_and_traditional_foods/

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/

 

Nyger Seed Sources:

https://www.topcropmanager.com/corn/niger-seed-production-is-for-the-birds-13172

https://www.petcha.com/nyjer-black-oil-sunflower-bird-seeds-a-history/

http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2009/12/growing-nyjer-thistle-in-north-america

https://web.colby.edu/mainebirds/2016/02/05/the-history-of-bird-feeding-ii/

http://www.manoramagroup.co.in/commodities-niger-seed.html

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/11/30/winegar

https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/139533/SB571.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

 

K-Lime Sources:

https://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/getting-rid-k-word/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/03/kaffir_lime_racist_murky_origins_suggest_a_racial_slur_might_be_responsible.html

The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

The Road NOT Traveled: Seven Things We Didn’t See

H. Bradford

5/31/18

As much as we packed into each day, there was quite a lot that my brother and I did not see on our road trip.  I think that no matter how long or short a trip is, there are always things that a person misses out on. In life in general, there isn’t time for everything!  So, here are some highlights of the Road NOT Traveled, should anyone undertake a road trip between Texas and Minnesota and need some additional ideas of places to stop.


 

1. Mammoth National Monument- Waco, Texas

Originally, we had planned on traveling along Interstate 35 to Waco, Texas.  The goal was to see Mammoth National Monument, a park operated by the US National Park Service wherein visitors can see two dozen mammoth fossils.  I think it would have been pretty interesting to visit the site and learn more about Colombian mammoths and other Pleistocene animals. However, this would have taken us through thick traffic.  We instead made the choice to visit Balcones Canyon Lands. We ended up seeing an endangered golden cheeked warbler. I think seeing the warbler was probably more special than seeing the mammoths.  After all, the mammoth fossils aren’t going anywhere… Image result for mammoth national monument

image from National Parks Conservation Association


2. Dr. Pepper Museum- Waco, Texas

I don’t even like Dr. Pepper.  Yet, for some reason I wanted to make a stop at the Dr. Pepper Museum in Waco, Texas.  I guess it was just another thing to do in Waco. Well, we skipped Waco and missed out on the museum.  Twenty four mammoths and twenty three flavors were not enough to draw us to Waco…

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image from Dr.pepper museum website


3. Frida Kahlo Mexican Restaurant and Billy the Kid’s Grave-Hamilton, Texas:

I missed out on the Frida Kahlo Mexican restaurant and the so-called grave of Billy the Kid in Hamilton, Texas.  The grave actually belongs to Brushy Bill Roberts, who claimed to be Billy the Kid.   I suppose visiting the site would be akin to visiting the the grave of someone who claimed to be Anastasia Romanov.  I was not aware of these sites until we passed through.  Since we were on our way to Dinosaur Valley State Park and had not planned a stop, we passed along without stopping.

Image result for frida kahlo mexican restaurant hamilton

image from Tripadvisor


4. Giant Czech Egg- Wilson, Kansas:

“Awe, look…they’re even wearing their cute little outfits,” my brother said regarding Wilson, Kansas’ Czech Egg and the accompanying Czech denizens of the small town.  The community features a 20 foot tall painted Czech Egg. Unfortunately, it was impossible to include the giant painted egg in our adventure, since it is located four hours away from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  The “Czech Capital” of Kansas was too westerly to fit into our road trip. I am sure it would have been fantastic to see the giant egg, but not enough to add several more hours of driving in the opposite direction.

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image from Atlas Obscura


 

5. TruckHenge-Topeka, Kansas:

I really wanted to see TruckHenge, a work of art from an anti-social anti-government sort who was told to remove the junk from his property but instead turned it into a tourist attraction.   Located outside of Topeka, Kansas, a visit to the site would not have added THAT much time to our trip. However, my brother had misgivings about visiting the property of a seemingly hostile anti-government individual whose odd, scrawled messages on the cars indicated that a social visit to his private property would amount to an awkward interaction.  A visit to the farm would necessarily mean interacting with this person as he gave us a tour of the property.   It is hard to know what to expect from this person. Would he engage us in political conversation? What would we say?  How long would the tour last?  Would we offend him?  There were too many social unknowns about such a visit.  I, on the other hand, had initially mistaken Truckhenge for Carhenge, which is an ACTUAL replica of Stonehenge with cars.  Carhenge is located on western end of Nebraska and therefore too far out of the way to make it worth our while. So, there was no Truckhenge or Carhenge for us! Image result for truck henge He might have been a polite and reserved tour guide.  I guess we will never know…


6.  Subterra Castle-Topeka Kansas area:

Just west of Topeka, tourists can visit (and stay at!) a missile silo turned unique home!  The missile silo was decommissioned in 1965 and purchased for $40,000 in 1983 by Ed Peren and his wife.  Ed turned the missile silo into a livable space (pumping out water and testing for radiation). They have decorated the space with New Age decor and offer private tours of their home.  I think it would have been interesting to visit, but tours must be arranged in advance. Lack of time and planning prevented a visit.

Image result for subterra castle

image from Subterracastle.com


 

7. Kregel Windmill Museum-Nebraska City, Nebraska:

I wrongly assumed that the Kregel Windmill Museum in Nebraska City is the only museum of its kind.  Oddly enough, there are a sprinkling of other windmill museums across the US and even in South Africa!  The Kregel Windmill Museum was on our road trip agenda but was cut because we ended up taking a different route to Sioux City, Iowa when we visited the Indian Cave State Park.  Given the choice between seeing a museum devoted to a windmill manufacturer or Native American petroglyphs, I chose the petroglyphs. While I may have missed out on the Kregal Windmill Museum, perhaps I can chase windmills another day (as Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Indiana also have windmill museums.) Image result for kregel windmill factory museum

image from wikipedia


There are only so many hours in a day.  A person has to choose if they are going to see endangered warblers or a mammoth graveyard.  Choices must be made between Native American petroglyphs and windmill museums.  The worth of visiting a slice of prairie must be weighed against the value of giant painted eggs.  Life (for some people) is full of choices.  I like to think that life is long.  Perhaps, one day, I will visit some of these sites.  Perhaps not!  Of course, there are others that were not mentioned, as we passed by numerous interesting places along the way.   There are always roads not taken and all of the fascinating things that will only be experienced in the imagination.   I am happy for the privilege of experiencing those things that I can.

Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

Fantastic Birds and Where We Found Them

H. Bradford

5/29/18

A highlight of visiting new areas is the possibility of seeing new birds.  I feel that I have been growing a lot as a birder, but it is both a body of knowledge, practice/training, and a skill set (attention to detail, spotting things quickly, memory).  Thankfully, my brother was a good sport and helped me spot birds.  Having a second set of eyes was helpful in uncovering some of the bird life hidden in the world around me.  With that said, here are some of the top birds that we spotted between Texas and Minnesota on our road trip!  (Note that many of the photos are poor quality since the birds are distant, moving, or just hard to easily capture for me).


    1. Golden Cheeked Warbler:

       

The Golden cheeked warbler only nests in Central Texas and nowhere else in the world.  According to Audubon’s guide to North American birds, it prefers mature woods of ashe juniper and has been threatened by loss of habitat and nest parasitism from cowbirds.  My brother and I set out for the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge in search of the bird.  I didn’t have high hopes of finding it, since it is rare and warblers can be difficult to spot.  We hiked along a juniper covered hill in search of the endangered bird and only found it at the end of the hike.  The warbler actually perched a few feet away from my brother.  It wasn’t too difficult to identify, since we had passed sixteen trail markers along the way which featured a painted image of the bird.  The bird’s population is about 21,000, so it is rarest bird I have seen.  Texas land developers want to de-list the bird as an endangered species.  1/3 of the bird’s habitat was destroyed between 1999 – 2011.   It would be a terrible loss if this bird went extinct due to the profit driven shortsightedness of land developers.  Plus, the mature juniper forests we hiked through are a really unique and pretty habitat. https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/golden-cheeked-warbler https://www.audubon.org/news/yet-again-texas-developers-try-delist-endangered-golden-cheeked-warbler

Image may contain: bird and outdoor

Image may contain: tree, plant, sky, outdoor and nature


2. Scissor Tailed Flycatcher

I really wanted to see a Scissor Tailed Flycatcher because they are unique looking birds.  I had never seen one before until visiting the Botanical Gardens in San Antonio.  Of course, once I saw one…I saw them all over!  The birds were perched on wires along the roads between Texas and southern Kansas.  They range across the southern great plains and seemed especially common in Oklahoma.  Since they range so far south, I certainly have never encountered one in Minnesota.  They are related to kingbirds and I watched one of them swoop to eat insects at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas.

Image may contain: sky, tree, bird, plant, outdoor and nature


 

3. Painted Bunting

My brother spotted an unfamiliar bird at Government Canyon.  The brilliantly bright bird was about the size of a sparrow.  When I caught it in my binoculars, I saw that it was a painted bunting…one of those birds that is immediately recognizable to anyone who has browsed bird guides.  The colorful, green, red, and blue bird can be found in the South eastern United States, including Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana as well as some parts of the Carolinas and Florida.  Like the Scissor Tailed Flycatcher, once we spotted one we were seeing them all over- with sightings at Balcones Canyonlands and Dinosaur Valley State Park.  That is one of the interesting things about birding.  You can be “bird blind” to a species or all birds, until you take time to notice/identify them- then suddenly- they are everywhere!

Image may contain: sky, bird, tree, plant, outdoor and nature

 


4. Indigo Bunting:

Further north in Nebraska, my brother spotted a small blue bird, which I recognized as an Indigo Bunting.  Although Indigo Buntings can be found in Minnesota, I have never seen one.  There were dozens of the blue colored birds near the wetland trail at Indian Cave State Park.  The bird ranges throughout the Eastern half of the United States, from Texas to Minnesota, eastward to the Atlantic coast.

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature

 


 

5. Lark Sparrow:

Sparrows aren’t always the easiest to identify, since they are generally some variation of brown.  Still, as I identify more birds, I know that sparrows are in the frontier of new species that I can add to my life list.  Thankfully, the Lark Sparrow was easy to identify.  I spotted one at Dinosaur Valley State Park, but also saw a few in Kansas.  I didn’t immediately know that I had observed a new sparrow, but I did note that its facial pattern stood out compared to other sparrows I have seen.  Lark Sparrows are not found in Minnesota as they tend to range further west and south.

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6. Black chinned hummingbird

The only hummingbird regularly found in Minnesota is the Ruby throated hummingbird.  I was definitely hoping to see another species of hummingbird on my trip.  To this end, I spent some time in the butterfly garden of the San Antonio Botanical gardens, where I believe I saw a female black chinned hummingbird.
The black throated hummingbird is most commonly found in the southwestern United States.  I got a better view of this hummingbird at Dinosaur Valley State Park, where I saw several easier to identify males.   Black chinned hummingbirds are common in the Western united states and closely related to Ruby throated hummingbirds.

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7. Golden- Fronted Woodpecker

In addition to seeing another species hummingbird, I really wanted to see more woodpeckers.  I was treated to a sighting of a Golden fronted woodpecker at the San Antonio Botanical gardens.  I happened to make a second, last minute visit to the bird observatory, where the woodpecker was perched by a dried up orange.  According to Allaboutbirds, Golden Fronted woodpeckers enjoy eating grass hoppers and sometimes stain their beaks purple from eating prickly pears.  The woodpecker is found in Oklahoma and Texas. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Golden-fronted_Woodpecker/overview?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI6O_o9bKW2wIVEtbACh26xgVwEAAYASAAEgIUo_D_BwE


8. Red-Headed Woodpecker:

Red-headed woodpeckers can be found in Minnesota, but I have never seen one.  It seems that they range across much of the Eastern United States.  My first sighting of a red-headed woodpecker was at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.  My brother and I spotted one in the forest along the river.  It was a quick sighting, but the bird is pretty unmistakable with its entirely red head.  According to Allaboutbirds, the Red-headed woodpecker has many nicknames, the best of which is probably Jellycoat.  Fossils of red-headed woodpeckers have been found in Florida, dating back as much as 2 million years.


 

9. Meadowlark:

Another bird that I wanted to see was a meadowlark.  Meadowlarks can be found in Minnesota, but once again, I have not seen one.  Once we entered Kansas, I started to see meadowlarks everywhere!  They were on fence posts and power lines.  One flew over my brother’s van.  Of course, there are Western and Eastern Meadowlarks- which look extremely similar.  The state bird of Kansas is the Western Meadowlark.  I want to assume that is what I saw, but both birds can be found in Kansas as their ranges overlap.  I took a photo of one of them at Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve.  Upon looking at the photo, I believe it was an Eastern Meadowlark…as it had a whiter mustache and bolder colors.  Maybe among all of the Meadowlarks I saw, I saw a few of each.  I didn’t hear the song, which is an easier way of telling the two apart.

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10. Swallows:

I saw several species of swallows on my trip.  Swallows have been difficult for me to identify because they look similar, move quickly, and often don’t pause long enough for a good look.  However, I am slowly starting to sort out the swallows one by one.  For instance, if it is solidly dark, it is a purple martin.  If it is purple/blue on top but white on the underside, it is a tree swallow.  A blue and brown head with a forked tail is a barn swallow and a blue and brown head (+ white spot) without a forked tail is a cliff swallow.   A swallow that is brown with a brown chest, is a bank swallow.  This is a fairly rough guide to the differences, but has helped me sort out the swallows.  I saw cliff swallows in Oklahoma City and bank swallows at Indian Cave State Park.  The San Antonio Botanical Gardens had tree swallows and purple martins.  I also saw Barn swallows along the way.

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Conclusion:

During the road trip, I saw over 25 new species of birds.  I am sure if I was a better birder, there were probably at least 40 new species of birds.   Kansas and Nebraska were great for viewing raptors, but it was hard to identify them while driving.  There were other birds that I saw, such as a curved billed thrasher, tufted titmouse, sedge wren, lesser yellowlegs, orchard oriole, Loggerhead shrike, etc. which added to my list.   My brother saw a bobwhite, but I only caught it making noise and flying away.  Thus, some sightings were better than others.

Other birds: a loggerhead shrike at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a night hawk also at the Tall Grass National Preserve, a blue gray gnatcatcher at Dinosaur Valley, Scrub Jay at Balcones Canyonlands,  Curve billed thrasher at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens, and many more which were too fast to photograph…

Image may contain: bird, sky, tree and outdoor

 

Image may contain: tree, sky, bird, plant and outdoor

Image may contain: sky, plant, tree, bird, outdoor and nature

Image may contain: bird, sky and outdoorImage may contain: plant, flower, grass, outdoor and nature

Road Trip: Texas to Minnesota!

 five

Road Trip:  Texas to Minnesota!

H. Bradford

5/20/18

This year, my brother accepted a new job in Minnesota.  This meant that he had to move his family and belongings from San Antonio to Minnesota.  The move presented a logistical problem, as he has two vehicles but would have had to pay someone to move one of the vehicles north.  So, rather than have him pay someone to move his vehicle- I volunteered to drive it for him!  I thought it might be fun to travel from Texas to Minnesota on an epic sibling road trip.  I planned out some stops and a route for us.  Because of my work schedule (eight days on/six days off) I was able to fly to San Antonio and embark on this road trip without having to miss work.  Of course, the only problem was that 1.) I hate driving.  2.) I have never driven that far before.  3.) I have never really driven in major cities.  But…the lure of adventure outstripped my anxieties and the cross country odyssey began.  Here are some highlights from the cross country journey!


 

Day One/Two: San Antonio

 

Riverwalk:

I arrived in San Antonio in the late afternoon after working a night shift the day before (and a stretch of nine shifts in a row prior to the trip).  Although I was sleep deprived, I had just enough energy to explore the River Walk for a few hours. The River Walk is a well touristed area, but an easy place for a leisurely stroll and overpriced food.  I enjoyed eating Mexican food, observing ducks, and posing by The Alamo. In the past, I have had some misgivings visiting and posing by The Alamo, which is a symbol of Texan independence/statehood. On the other hand, it could also be viewed as a place where Mexico squarely defeated insurgent U.S.settlers.  Or, it could be viewed as a Spanish mission to educate or covert (i.e. acculturate/destroy) Native Americans into the Catholic faith. However one wants to remember The Alamo, a highlight was watching my brother convince one of the park rangers to take a photo with me by pretending to be a guileless tourist, rather than San Antonio resident for the past several years. Image may contain: 2 people, including Heather Bradford, people standing and outdoor


San Antonio Botanical Gardens:

It is hard to rank something like botanical gardens, since each is unique in their own way.  However, I will say that San Antonio probably has one of the best botanical gardens that I have been to.  A person can spend hours in the massive gardens, which features plants from several Texan regions, a pond, a bird observatory, children’s gardens, herb gardens, butterfly gardens, a Japanese garden, collections of ferns and citrus fruit, and much more.  The garden also offers a great view of San Antonio. I visited the garden while my brother was finishing his exit paperwork for the army. I focused on birdwatching, which is also great at the botanical gardens!

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The Missions:

After visiting the botanical garden, my brother and I headed off to see some of the San Antonio missions. Although I have visited San Antonio twice before, I had not visited the missions on my prior trips.  I was not entirely interested in them, since well, they are monuments to the conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism. However, since it was my last visit, I had not previously seen them, and they are World Heritage Sites, I thought there might be some value in paying a brief visit.  As such, we checked out two of the four missions. We visited Mission San Jose and Mission Concepcion. I would say that a highlight of visiting Mission San Jose was walking along the defensive walls of the grounds and imagining what life must have been like for the people who lived within the walls.  We paused to take a photo of the ornate, Rose Window, which was very popular with tourists. Otherwise, after walking the grounds, we headed over to Mission Conception, which was much smaller. The most notable thing about this mission site was the Native American murals. The ceiling of one part of the mission featured a sun with a mustache.  I like to think that the artist wanted to slip in some sort of subtle cultural resistance against Catholicism. No automatic alt text available.


Government Canyon State Natural Area

One of my favorite places to visit in the San Antonio area is Government Canyon.  In the past, I have spent many hours hiking the canyon area. A must see highlight of the hike is the dinosaur footprints, which are located about two and a half miles from the visitor center.  Unfortunately, each time I have visited the tracks have been submerged in water. Despite the algae, mud, and water, the shape of the tracks is generally visible without much imagination. From the dinosaur footprints, hikers can choose several other trails.  This time, my brother and I chose to take the overlook trail.

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Day Three:  San Antonio to Gainesville, Texas

On day three of the trip, we finally left San Antonio via HWY 281 towards Marble Falls.  This route was preferable to the congested and speedy I-35, which would have taken us through Waco Texas (and to Mammoth National Monument).  The easy drive took us through Texas’ Hill Country, past many things named after Lyndon B. Johnson. Our first stop was in Marble Falls for breakfast…


Blue Bonnet Cafe:

We stopped for breakfast at the Blue Bonnet Cafe in Marble Falls, Texas.  I am not a huge fan of pancakes, but I will say that I had the best pancake I’ve eaten at this cafe.  It was fluffy, filling, and thick. I also appreciate that everywhere I ate in Texas had iced tea (at all hours) and that I was often offered a “to go” cup for my refill.  This is not the norm in Minnesota. In any event, the breakfast was a great start to the day, which says a lot since breakfast is my least favorite meal.

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Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge:

Following breakfast, we detoured away from 281 to Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge.  The visitors center was closed, but we went on to hike at the Warbler Vista.  Our goal was to see the elusive and endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler, which is endemic to Texas and only breeds in mature juniper forests.  We wandered along a jagged juniper lined hill trail. While we heard birds, we saw nothing for most of the hike. Then, towards the end of the hike, we decided to take a moment to investigate the source of a birdsong.  Sure enough, it was the Golden Cheeked Warbler!  I struggled to photograph the quick bird as evidence that I had seen the endangered warbler. The bird actually landed a few feet away from my brother, then zipped off to some nearby evergreens.   I was able to snap a photo. We saw and heard the bird a few more times before finishing the trail.  At the end of the trail, I saw two scrub jays, which were also a first time sighting for me. The Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge is also home to the Black capped vireo, another endangered bird. We set off to the Shin Oak overlook, where the bird is sometimes found. However, we did not have any luck seeing this bird.   We saw an Indigo Bunting and many cardinals, which seem pretty abundant in the Texas Hill Country. Image may contain: plant, tree, sky, grass, outdoor and nature Image may contain: bird and outdoor


Dinosaur Valley State Park:

 

Our journey continued towards Dinosaur Valley State Park.  This brought us back along HWY 281 to enjoy more Hill Country scenery and small, Texan towns.  One of the more unique towns that we passed through was Hamilton, Texas. Hamilton features a Frida Kahlo themed Mexican restaurant and the grave of a man who claimed to be Billy the Kid.  Further along 281, Hico Texas hosts a Billy the Kid museum. We did not stop at these places as we lacked the time, but I think that they would have been interesting stops.


We drove on to Dinosaur Valley State Park, which is known for several sets of dinosaur foot prints.  When we arrived, the day was very hot. We were initially very excited to pose by the giant dinosaur statues and find the prints.  The excitement gave way to frustration. The park was very busy and the tracks were located in the water. We slipped out of our shoes, waded into the water, and crossed slippery rocks to view one set of tracks.  This was a lot of effort. I had imagined that the tracks would be permanently etched in mud turned to stone along a dry path. Nope. It is my understanding that all of the tracks are located in the Puluxy River.  There are times of the year when the river is drier and access to the tracks is easier.   Based on my experience, I would recommend bringing water shoes and preparing for some wading to access them.  I would also recommend a water proof camera or not bringing along anything that should not get wet.  On the other hand, the park is an ideal place to bring kids, since children can literally swim around with dinosaur foot prints. Image may contain: cloud, sky, shoes, outdoor and nature Image may contain: outdoor and water


After viewing one set of footprints, we decided to go for a hike.  Hiking on any of the trails involved crossing over the river (which is another good reason to bring water shoes or waterproof hiking boots).  My feet got wet in the crossing. The heat and wet feet added to my waning morale.   I was encouraged by the idea that we might see a rare Black capped vireo on one of the trails.  However, we didn’t see many birds and after driving all day, we didn’t have much energy for a long hike. Our final destination was still over two hours ahead of us, so we eventually turned around to plot the final leg of our day’s journey.

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Gainesville, Texas:

We spent the night on Day Three in Gainesville, Texas, which is located very close to Oklahoma.  The drive there was pleasant enough as we skirted around major cities and the associated traffic.  By the time we arrived, it was late in the evening and we were both tired. We didn’t do much sightseeing in Gainesville, but managed to drag ourselves to a Mexican restaurant not far from our hotel.  I ordered a vegetarian taco, which was stuffed with “mixed vegetables.” As it turned out, the mixed vegetables were literally the sort of mixed vegetables a person gets from a can or in a school lunch (carrots, corn, green beans, lima beans).  It was odd and disappointing.  Otherwise, we strolled around the historic downtown area and called it a day!


Day Four:  Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas

Day four took us from Gainesville, Texas to Wichita, Kansas.  We set out early, followed Interstate 35, and made our first stop in Oklahoma City to visit a few tourist sites.  Oklahoma has some lovely landscapes and I regret that we did not stop to take some photos as we pressed towards Oklahoma City.

Myriad Gardens and Bricktown:


This botanical garden was smaller than I thought it would be, but it was still a relaxing place to visit.  I enjoyed the small collection of unique fruit plants such as the blackberry jam plant (Randia Formosa) and fruit salad tree (Monstera Deliciosa).  Outside of the greenhouse, there was a park/amphitheater with ducks, irises, and a sunken lake. Myriad Gardens is located by the Bricktown Entertainment District.  My brother and I strolled around the area, enjoying the river walk along the Oklahoma River. I regret that I did not take more photos of Bricktown itself, which seemed like a pretty typical center of urban tourism.  Originally, Bricktown was an industrial area centered around the Santa Fe Railroad. Bricktown and neighboring Deep Deuce were once centers for Oklahoma City’s African American population, but this shifted with the decline of industries, construction of major highways, and desegregation of the city.  In the 1980s the area was purchased by a private developer and further gentrification was promoted by the city’s Metropolitan Area Projects (MAP) program. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/bricktown-and-deep-deuce-oklahoma-city-1889 Image may contain: sky and outdoor


Museum of Osteology:

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the museum located miles away from Oklahoma City’s center in what appeared to be a neighborhood of warehouses, fields, and road construction.  It was also strange that the remote building was a private museum of skeletons collected by an individual.   It seemed rather eccentric that a person would collect over 300 skeletons, which he personally cleaned, and displayed for the public.  Despite the weird location and fact it was someone’s menagerie of the dead, the museum was actually one of the most memorable that I have visited. The displays were professional and scientific. The skeletons were generally organized by taxonomic families and featured interesting facts.  For instance, I learned that hedgehogs were no longer grouped in the order Insectivora (as it no longer exists).  All of the skeletons were real, with the exception of a collection of early human remains replicas. The center of the museum featured giraffe, whale, hippo, and elephant skeletons.  The gift shop was full of unique souvenirs, including unicorn skeleton bumper stickers, glow in the dark animal skeleton t-shirts, and toad skeletons encased in plastic.

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Chisholm Creek Park/Great Plains Nature Center:

Upon arriving in Wichita, we felt like taking a walk.  We had heard of the Great Plains Nature Center, but read that it was closed on a Sunday.  My brother searched for another nearby park and found the Chisholm Creek Park. As it turned out, the park WAS actually part of the Great Plains Nature Center and OPEN.  This was great luck! We hiked along the trails, which meandered through wetlands, forests, and prairie areas. I saw many birds, including two black crowned night herons, many tree sparrows, and great blue herons.  The park was surprisingly busy for a Sunday evening, with people of all ages enjoying nature. While we didn’t stay long in Wichita, Chisholm Creek Park was definitely worth a visit (and probably even better when the visitor center is open!) Image may contain: outdoor


Day Five:  Wichita to Sioux City, Iowa

Day five of our journey was packed full of driving, outdoors, and adventure.

Tallgrass Prairie Reserve:

Just over an hour away from Wichita on a farmland and meadowlark lined highway is the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.  This park is a small piece of the ecosystem that once spread across the midsection of country.  Only 4% of the US’ tall grass prairie remains. We arrived early and were immediately charmed by the hilly, grass carpeted landscape and socially awkward park ranger at the visitor center.  Best of all, the park is FREE to visit!  We set off on a trail that began near the visitor center, which took us through pasture and along a wooded river trail.  The small patch of woods hosted a large variety of birds, making for some of the best birding on the trip.  It also shaded us from the sun and provided a nice vantage point for viewing the prairie. We hiked for over two hours, ending just as the sun was gaining strength. If we would have had more time to explore, we could have taken a bus tour to visit other parts of the park and view the bison herd.  Instead, we had a long day of driving ahead of us, so we set off on back roads towards Topeka. I wanted to avoid toll roads, so we took a slightly longer route. The longer route gave us a nice view of the Flint Hills and smaller Kansas communities.

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Westboro Baptist Church:

I was not aware that the Westboro Baptist Church was located in Topeka, Kansas.  The hateful church is located in a quiet residential neighborhood. We stopped for the spectacle of seeing the infamous church and also for the opportunity to give them the finger.  We made the quick stop before taking a fast food lunch break in Topeka. Across the street from the church are two colorful houses. One is decorated in the colors of the Trans flag and the other is clad in rainbow siding.  The house with the pride flag colors is the Equality House, which has hosted weddings, drag shows, and fundraisers. The Trans flag house was purchased by an eight year old transgender child through crowdfunding.  There are many fast food restaurants located near the church, so we stopped for a quick bite to eat before continuing our journey. Image may contain: tree, sky, house, plant, outdoor and nature   Image may contain: Heather Bradford, standing, tree and outdoor


Indian Cave State Park:

From Topeka, we headed to Indian Cave State Park in Nebraska.  We arrived in the late afternoon, once again following rural roads.  I wanted to visit the park, since I thought it would be interesting to see petroglyphs left behind by Native Americans thousands of years ago.  There is also a ghost town nestled within the state park.


We found that the park was very expansive if not a little confusing.   The petroglyphs were located at the furthest end of the park, along a cliff face facing the Missouri River.  The rock wall is more of a cliff than a cave.  Still, the site is easily accessed from the road.  Unfortunately, many people have carved messages into the rock face over the years.  The petroglyphs are hidden within a mess of graffiti.  There seems to be little to prevent further desecration of the monument, so I would recommend visiting the park for the opportunity to see it while you can! Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


After visiting the petroglyphs, we followed the road back to the ghost town of St. Deroin.  The city was abandoned after the Missouri River shifted and the town lost ferry service. Interestingly, the community was part of the Nemaha Half-breed reservation, who were a group of mixed ancestry Native American/European people.  The reservation ceased to exist in 1861 but some of the descendants continue to live in the area to this day.  It seems like a fascinating history, since they would have been outsiders to both societies and I wonder how modern descendants fare today.  For instance, do they identify with their Native American roots or do they want some kind of federal recognition?

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Finally, we explored a wetland trail near the remnants of St. Deroin, where we saw over a dozen Indigo buntings and my brother saw a bobwhite.  The trail offered a few of the Missouri River, as well its previous path by St. Deroin.


Sioux City, Iowa:

After a long day of driving and exploring, our final stop was Sioux City.  We didn’t arrive until after 9pm, so we really didn’t have time to explore.  My impression was that Sioux City seems to be a hub for semi trucks.  The only thing we did in Sioux City was share an appetizer sampler at Perkins, almost collapse from exhaustion when we arrived at our hotel, and complain about the news coverage of the royal wedding.


 

Day Six:  HOME!


Lake Crystal:

On our final day, we drove from Sioux City to our respective homes.  The final journey took us through Lake Crystal, Mn, where my brother picked up the rest of his family.  I stopped by the nearby Welsh Park, which is named after the second longest city name in the world. Apparently, many Welsh people settled in the area.  There was once a Welsh Methodist church and there is also a Welsh Heritage Orchard.  There is also a Welsh farmstead on the national register of historic places (Jones-Roberts Farmstead).  I don’t know the specifics of Welsh settlement in Lake Crystal, but Blue Earth and LeSueur Countries attracted a few thousand Welsh settlers who farmed in those counties.

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Pigeon Lake Rookery:

Continuing north, we stopped at Pigeon Lake.  Pigeon Lake is a wildlife viewing area, where a person can stop alongside the road and view several islands which serve as rookeries for pelicans, cormorants, and herons.  Without a spotting scope, it is hard to see the scope of the species breeding on the islands. However, even without a spotting scope, hundreds of birds can be seen dotting the islands. Image may contain: sky, tree, outdoor, nature and water


Sartell to Duluth:  The End…

My brother’s final destination was his new home in Sartell.  We spent some time viewing the new house, which was still devoid of his belongings.  From there, my mother drove me back home to Duluth. Thus my road trip ended! I was exhausted, as I had driven over 1,400 miles and seen many things.  The next morning it was back to work for me.


It was nice to have the opportunity to go on a road trip with my brother.  I felt as though I had lived several weeks over the course of several days.  We were busy from the early morning to late night each day.  Even with a busy schedule, we didn’t scratch the surface of everything we could have seen!  There were bones, birds, dinosaur foot prints, petroglyphs, and hikes.  The “flyover” states have plenty to offer and I think that for as much as I dislike the US for its politics, racism, sexism, other isms, history, and place in the world- I can appreciate the US for our natural landscapes.

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Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

H. Bradford

5/7/18

I learned about the Husky Fire just before 11 am on April 26th when I was about to leave the Women’s Health Center in Duluth.   A co-worker from Superior rushed into the office and announced that just after 10 am there had been an explosion at the Murphy Oil Refinery, that there are evacuations, and multiple deaths.  The director turned on the television in the lobby, which reported 20 casualties.  My initial reaction was horror and anger.  I felt horror because it seemed as though there were many injuries and deaths.  I also felt horror since I was returning home from Superior after working ten hours at Safe Haven (overnight) and three hours at the Women’s Health Center.  I didn’t know what I would be returning home to or if I would be able to return home.  I felt anger because I just wanted to go to sleep!  I had already worked through the night and into the morning.  It was a terribly inconvenient time to have an industrial disaster.   I texted my housemates Adam and Lucas an alarmed text about evacuations and deaths (which later proved to not be entirely true), finished the last 10 minutes of my shift, and headed home to the unknown of Superior.

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(An image that I believe was used in the Duluth News Tribune)


Traffic was normal on the way home.  For a moment, I panicked that the Blatnik Bridge was closed, as there was a caravan of large street cleaning vehicles blocking access to the bridge.  The bridge was not closed.  The vehicles were partaking in the normal activity of cleaning the streets.  Still, things were clearly amiss as I could see a giant, black cloud in the distance- spreading menacingly away from the Husky Refinery (which I had until that morning thought was the Murphy Oil Refinery.  I was not aware that the Alberta based company, Husky Energy, had purchased the facility in August 2017).  Despite the sprawling black cloud, everything in Superior was oddly normal.  I noticed someone outside doing yard work.  A dog was sitting out in the yard.  Young children were playing in a park.  I thought it was bizarre and reminded me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl accident.  People slept in their beds, then awoke, and went about their business as radiation saturated them.  Chernobyl may seem like an unfair comparison, but oddly, the Husky Fire and Chernobyl both happened on April 26th (a collapsed country and thirty two years apart).   In any event, at that point of time, there was not as much concern.  My roommates didn’t seem concerned yet and the earlier alarm about multiple deaths and evacuations was found to be untrue.  (The word casualty does not mean death, but can mean injury- such as casualties of war.  However, since the word is often used to mean someone who has been killed, there was some initial misunderstanding about the media use of the word.  As for evacuations, as of 11:15 ish when I returned home, there was nothing beyond the immediate area of the disaster (to my knowledge).


I settled into bed, unsettled, but trying not to worry too much.  No one else seemed very worried.  Not the kids playing or person carrying on the yard work.  I spent time looking at the news, but everything seemed to be under control.  Before going to bed, I told my roommate Lucas to shut all of the windows, but he laughed at me.  I think he even made a Chernobyl joke, about how I had been there, and was the expert now.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  The window was shut, but I imagined invisible particles entering the house and breathing them as I slept.  I thought about dying in my sleep or just inhaling carcinogenic debris.  I felt angry again.  I felt mad about having worked the night shift and that I was unable to get the rest I needed.  Lack of sleep often invokes anger in me.  Eventually, I did fall asleep…for about an hour… before Lucas knocked on my bedroom door and said that an area 3 miles around the refinery and 10 miles downwind was being evacuated.  There had been more explosions.  He said he was heading to Duluth.  I was crabby and exhausted, so I said I would just stay in bed.  I pulled two more blankets over my head, as if it would give me added protection from the poisonous smoke.  Lucas texted me what seemed a frantic message that the traffic over the bridge was extremely backed up and he was stuck.  I became more concerned as it seemed that the people of Superior had finally mobilized to escape.  The schools had closed.  I think the area of evacuation at that time was as near as UW Superior (which isn’t that far from where I live).  While I think that I was just outside the evacuation area, three miles is not a magical perimeter- outside of which everyone is safe.  Oh, 3.2 miles- that’s cool!  Those particles are 100% gone at exactly the three mile mark.


I eventually dragged my extremely tired body out of bed.   Tiredness tried hard to battle fear.  But eventually fear won as my boyfriend said he was leaving for work early, but that he thought I should leave the house too.  He said he wanted to know that I was safe.  I am often feel that my needs (such as sleep) don’t matter much to the universe, so it was touching that my safety was concerning.  I told him that I would also go to back to work.  I work at a domestic violence shelter and our employee break room has a futon.  I thought that if I fled Superior, I could go to my job and rest for a while.  It is odd how work can be a place of refuge.  My work is a shelter- so it is equipped to – well, accommodate the needs of people who need a place to stay.  I didn’t rush to go there, but I did call my job to give them a heads up that I would be trying to sleep there.  Once my refuge was secured, I ambled around the house trying to throw a few things together.  My brain wasn’t in evacuation mode.  It was in “What do I need to bring with me to take a nap at work mode?”.   I packed only a few things, such as a toothbrush and some toiletries.  I also took a shower.  Our hot water heater had broken a week prior and had FINALLY been fixed that day.  I went a week with only one shower (which I took at UW-Superior’s fitness center).  So, showering was a priority above escape from the death cloud. Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, house, plant, outdoor and nature


I snapped a few photos of the cloud on my way out of Superior and then when I arrived in Duluth.  After taking the photos, I was happy to report to work and find that my supervisor had fixed up the employee break room nicely for me.  She gave me new, clean bedding (not the stained, worn bedding the residents end up with) and had turned the futon into a bed.  The shelter had been made aware that CASDA, a domestic violence shelter in Superior, had been evacuated.   Safe Haven was ready to accept people staying at CASDA, but in the end, they went to a hotel.  As for our own residents, they were gathered around the television, watching the news coverage.  The cloud was much larger and darker now.   They asked me questions and seemed happy that I was safe.  That was also very touching.  They are all homeless and have gone through truly awful things.  Still, they had enough emotional reserves left to care about a worker at the shelter (who often make their lives harder by enforcing rules or determining the length of their stay.)  As I settled down and tried to sleep, my mother called.  She did not know about the accident until she drove home and noticed the cloud in the distance.  The cloud from the fire could be seen over fifty miles away in Cromwell.  She offered that I could stay with her.  It was an hour away and I was beyond tired (having obtained about an hour of sleep), so I declined, but said maybe I would depending upon how bad the situation was.

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I really didn’t sleep well.  I checked the news.  There were reports that fire fighters were unable to fight the fire and were just waiting.  It was reported that it could burn for days.  I also read that there were concerns about a tank of hydrogen flouride.  I learned that hydrogen flouride is used at about 50 oil refineries in the US.  I also learned that it becomes hydroflouric acid when it contacts moisture, such as that the moisture of the skin, lungs, eyes, etc.  and causes burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and other nasty health effects.  This was the first that I had learned about the tank.  The tank was supposed to be near the fire, but there was no reports of HOW close.  Nor, was there reports that the tank (which was 150-200 feet away from the uncontrollable blaze) was full of a chemical that could kill thousands of people if the tank exploded.   My brain could not turn off.  There was too much information to process and too much lack of information to ponder.  I may have slept an additional 45 min to an hour, but eventually decided to wake up.  Sleep was simply not on the agenda.   Instead, I woke up, gathered myself, and decided to go for a walk.  By then, it was nearly 7pm and there were reports that the fire had been put out and the evacuation would likely be called off later in the evening.  That was encouraging.


Later that night, I joined a few friends for trivia.  I talked to Chris about my concerns about the tank of hydrogen flouride, which she agreed was nasty and would kill/injure thousands of people.  She looked at a google map of the Husky Refinery and we tried to figure out where the tank was in relation to the fire.  This information was not available to the public at that time.  She concluded that it might be one of the smaller tanks by the railroad tracks, as it is unlikely that they would want to transport the chemical that far from the trains that carry it.  This didn’t allay my fears, since these small tanks were not far from the fire (but father away than the ACTUAL tank turned out to be).   Lucas, one of my roommates, decided he was going back to Superior despite the ongoing concern about the tank.  Adam had already been in Superior for several hours, since he needed to take care of his chickens and felt he was safe in the basement.  This made it difficult for me to sustain my concern.  I definitely wanted to go home (since I had slept a sum of two hours in the last day and a half or so).  I hadn’t packed anything.  The evacuation didn’t really come with instructions of what to take or for how long to expect.  Ultimately, I returned to Superior since I didn’t want to be the one roommate out of four who was too chicken to go home.  After all, even the chickens weren’t evacuated.  There is a stigma about being fearful.  It is a sign of weakness.  Personally, I don’t think that I made a rational choice.  I also don’t feel that my house mates were entirely rational about remaining.  But, I think that making smart choices requires information.  I don’t think we had the information required to make smart choices of staying in Superior or not.  The risks of the tank exploding and nature of hydroflouric acid would have been important information.  The suggestion that the evacuation would end as early as 9pm also created false hope and a false sense of security.   Smart choices also require the material support to make a choice.  In my case, in a very real sense I was extremely tired.  By the end of trivia, I could no longer remember my telephone number.  I also could not remember who Anthony Bourdain was (a trivia answer I knew, but could not remember).   I don’t think I had the mental wherewithal to drive a safe distance or make an informed decision.  In a way, I feel that I failed my friends by not being more insistent and concerned for our safety.

 

I returned home sometime after midnight.  I noted that there was a chemical odor in the air, but continued inside to my bed.   The evacuation order was not lifted until 6am.  I was dead tired, but only slept a few hours.  Again, I was obsessed with looking up snippets of news.  But, throughout the night, Facebook and the media were sleeping.   There were no new updates.  By morning, every celebrated how the community came together.  Duluth sent buses to Superior.  Emergency respondents from around the area pitched in.  There were no deaths.  School children were evacuated to the DECC.  People opened their homes to evacuees.  And, the air was said to be normal.  For the most part, life resumed as normal.  Businesses opened.  People went about life as usual.  Despite the air quality being deemed “normal” this seemed impossible, considering that a giant asphalt fire raged on for eight hours creating a plume of black smoke that could be seen 50 miles away.  But, it made me wonder what normal is?  Maybe that amount of pollutants in the air is normal – in places like Los Angelas or Beijing where millions of cars fill the air with exhaust each day.   I considered that perhaps our baseline or our normal is the equivalent of a raging asphalt fire.  What is normal?  Normal does not necessarily equate to healthy….

Lessons:

Conversations: 

The first lesson that I drew from this was that there should be ongoing conversations with friends or loved ones about what to do in the case of disasters.  I feel that we should challenge each other and ask lots of questions.  Where would we evacuate?  Why wouldn’t you want to evacuate? (I have chickens, I like my bed, I feel safe, I don’t like being a guest at someone’s house, etc.)  What would it take to convince you that this is needed?  Where would we take pets?  How would we get somewhere safe?  What are important things  you would want to pack?  I think that these kind of conversations could get everyone on the same page.  There is a social dynamic to evacuating.  People look to each other for cues that a situation is safe or unsafe or if they are too worried or too unconcerned.  I think that conversation could help family groups or friend groups make better decisions in crisis.


 

Expect Disasters:

I feel like a nutty, apocalypse prepared person with a year of food stocked in my fallout shelter.  But really, disasters should be expected.  This is because we live in a profit driven society.   Safety precautions involve increased fixed capital costs to capitalists.  The drive for profits means that there will be short cuts.  I am sure that anyone who has worked anywhere can see this.  Safety is usurped for profits when workers are not properly trained, are given defective equipment, tools or machinery is old or outdated, work days are lengthened, workplaces are understaffed, workers are overly tired, or any of the very ordinary conditions across all sectors of the economy.  Husky Energy has a history of fires and oil spills at other locations and the Superior refinery in particular had a $21,000 fine in 2015 for an OSHA violation related to chemical storage and emergency response.  While the fine was paid and OSHA reported the problem was resolved, the fine is nothing compared to the nearly $10 billion revenue that Husky Energy makes each year.   The drive for profits will always drive the trend towards lack of safety.  Therefore, any work place is a potential source of injury.  However, some work places operate on such a scale or with such dangerous materials that the danger extends from the every day risks faced by particular sets of workers to entire communities.   I remember in 1992, when Duluth and Superior were evacuated due to the benzene spill.  Although I was a child living over 50 miles away, I watched the news as the cloud spread.  I worried that it would come all the way to us.  My father worked in West Duluth (where he had suffered several serious on the job injuries over the years- the individual side of worker safety).  He was among the 80,000 people who evacuated that day.  Thus, I have lived through two disasters of a scale large enough to require evacuation.  Will it be the last?

Struggle is the Only Buffer Against Excesses of Capitalism:

I think this is an important moment for people in Duluth and Superior, since it is an opportunity fight for more safety.  There are plenty of concerned people who want more information and more testing of air and soil.  Many want an end to the use of hydrogen flouride at Husky Energy.  Some want an end to the refinery altogether or have used this as an opportunity to not only critique Husky, but Embridge, which also uses the facility.  The crisis has revealed many gaps in how disasters are handled, how environments are monitored, and how safety is ensured.  If this anger congeals into struggle, we can hopefully curtail some of the worst excesses of capitalism in our community and lessen the risk of future disasters.  The small measures of safety and environmental protection that we enjoy were won by struggle and will only be defended by the struggles of workers, but also social movements like environmental movements.   I have seen some cynicism about the effectiveness of protest, but I think that this is the perfect time for protest, petitions, public hearings, or the number of other methods of resistance which are being planned or discussed.

Challenge Complacency:

Honestly, it is hard to care about everything all of the time.  I have felt fatigued by activism and am often impressed by the amount of emotional energy that others can put into continuing to inform members of our community about this disaster.  I lack that energy.  I care…but I am tired.  Like the day that I didn’t get enough sleep, I just want to pull my blankets over my head and hide from the world.   I commend their efforts.  It is very easy to be complacent.  Should I plant a garden this year?  Should I care?  Everything I eat and drink is inundated with plastics and toxins of some kind.  The air I breathe is full of pollutants from the everyday functioning of our fossil fuel based economy.  At some point in my life, like almost everyone else, I am going to get cancer.  There are thousands of terrible things that happen every moment of every day.  That doesn’t even include the ordinary challenges of simply living.  Everything is terrible all of the time.   The only way to make it better is to fight for a better world  But, that suuuuure is tiresome.   Somehow, we must work together to challenge complacency.   I don’t have an good answer about how to care- but I think it helps to hold on to and grow that kernel of anger.  Anger is frowned upon, especially for women- but I care when I remember something that made me angry.  I am angry that I wasn’t well informed.  I am angry that many people in the world live in the shadow of the next catastrophe.  I am angry that life on our planet is going extinct and that we altering our planet in terrifying, irreversible ways.  I am angry that every day living for workers means potential injury from fast food deep fryers to nuclear reactors.   Yep, there we go.  Anger.  Gotta love it.  It is as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without a hot water heater.

Knowledge is Power:

This is a super cliche conclusion, but really, it is helpful to know things!  I didn’t even know the NAME of the refinery, much less what it does or how it functions.  I still don’t know much about the Husky Energy Refinery.   I am thankful that there are many people in the community who are asking questions and sharing resources to learn more.


I am sure I could draw other conclusions, but that’s all I’ve got for now.  There are other local activists who are far more informed and whose opinions have congealed into more meaningful reflection.   While I have been a lazy activist lately, I am committed to being a part of the struggle in the months ahead.  On Wednesday of this week there will be a protest against the liability waivers that Husky is having injured people sign so that they are not liable for future health problems.   We will all have long memories of the evacuation day.  With time, memories often vanish into novelty.  So, I hope it is not a memory of an isolated event but an ongoing struggle and conversation.

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The Woman Question

The Woman Question

H. Bradford

4/21/18

I have not written a poem for EVERY book that I have read this year, but this a poem inspired by Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women.


When did the oppression begin?

Was patriarchy painted on the walls of caves

long before women gave birth on factory floors?

Is it passed down in property

or built into the body?

Maybe it’s just all in the family.


And what is the value of labor unpaid?

Is the value surplus?

Is it use?

Or is there any value in the question at all?


What exactly is a woman?

A person, a place?

Or a thing we made from mud of ribs, breasts, and sin.

Is it an idea to divide us by pieces and parts?

An excuse to pay some less or nothing at all

so that society lives long enough to work another day?

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