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How I became a tree hugger

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By David Whitlock

"What are you doing, Dad?" my son asked when he called me on his cell phone.

I was sitting on our back patio, admiring the work I'd done, having just planted the first third of my garden with the non-genetically modified seeds I had oh-so carefully selected. I wanted to come as close as I could to having an organic garden.

Then just as I as I leaned back to relax, I stood up straight, squinting at the tractor spraying the field behind my house. It was coming closer and closer to my garden.

"Well," I told Dave in answer to his question, "I'm thinking about all the time and money I spent making sure I had non-GMO seeds so I could watch them get sprayed with pesticides."

A few minutes later, while I was in the garage transplanting some of my tomato plants and placing them back in my miniature green house, I heard Lori scream: "He's right up against the fence now."

There are several responses to a perceived environmental threat.

There's the "Oh well, surely they know what they're doing" response. I like that one because it avoids confrontation. But unfortunately, it ignores potential danger.

For years, crop dusters in Southwest Oklahoma, where I grew up, sprayed DDT and other pesticides. Some of the pesticides many crop dusters used have been linked as possible causes of certain cancers, like the one my oldest brother now fights, mantle cell lymphoma. Two of his high school friends have died from that cancer.

As award winning author Pete Daniel notes in his book "Toxic Drift, Pesticides and Health in the Post-WWII South," "After World War II, scientists failed to investigate the long-term possibilities of toxic drift, but instead focused on inventions and new products. They were willing to allow the future to take care of itself."

Then there's the more radical response reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street. I could set up a tent in the field, call it Occupy the Farm, and phone some lonely newspaper reporter in hopes that someone would take my picture standing in front of my tent while I'm holding my sign, "I have a say: no more chemical spray."

Maybe there's another way. I simply wanted to know if the spray was potentially harmful and what my options would be if it were. In the words of Jean Rostand, as quoted in Rachel Carson's classic work "Silent Spring," "The obligation to endure gives us the right to know."

"Yes," I said, "I surely have a right to know." So in that instant, I made a decision and, gently placing my tomato seedling back in the green house, I marched like Don Quixote across my back yard, convinced I could simply hail the sprayer like I would a taxi and casually inquire, "What's in that stuff?"

I never made it past my own yard.

The barbed wire fence grabbed me, holding me captive like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians. So there I was, instead of defending my garden, lying lamely in the fence with the seat of my pants and the front legs ripped apart. What's more, I could hear the hum of the sprayer approaching, and I envisioned him dousing me with chemicals while cackling, "Serves ya right, ya puny little tree hugger."

Instead, he suddenly turned in the opposite direction, and sensing my opportunity to break for it, I pulled myself out of the barbed wire and dashed to my car.

"Where on earth are you going?" Lori hollered as I drove in the direction of the sprayer's barn.

"The obligation to endure gives us the right to know," I shouted as I sped away.

She looked puzzled.

Afraid to expose my backside with my torn pants hopelessly exposing my underwear, I stood face to face with the sprayers. We had an amiable conversation. They had waited until the wind had died down to avoid any potential drift of the herbicide they were spraying. Having expressed my concerns, we shook hands, and I scooted home to treat my barbed wire wounds.

Later, a county extension agent informed me that their spray was most likely one of the more benign herbicides, essentially a form of Round-Up. And the common law in most states is that neither farmers nor neighbors are obligated to inform others what they are spraying.

But I still wonder about potential toxic drift: If it can harm plants, do I really want to eat them once they've been exposed to the chemicals? And how do I know it won't harm me sometime in the future? Or am I just being paranoid and over reactive?

Some states, I learned, have laws stipulating that herbicides and pesticides cannot be sprayed in the vicinity of a school.

"Aha," I thought. I could see a school next to my garden: "The Whitlock Academy of Safe Gardening."

First course: "Tree Hugging 101."