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Life in Mount Santo

A long, long time ago, far, far away, in the town of Mount Santo, there started a congregation of citizens, the Herbicidalists, that was in the occupation of forming a great new reality. They created a Magical Elixir that was spread over everything, and everything was rendered uniform, simplified. The Company the Herbicidalists spawned ensured that all the Mount Santoites were enlightened many times daily to this new way of living via this miraculous potion, its virtues touted on television, the Internet and social media, for the benefit of all. Everywhere there were beautiful young mothers with even more beautiful children and Golden Retrievers and kittens cavorting on the perfect green lawns of Mount Santo. Grownup Yuppie larvae husbands came home to their own personal golf courses, replete with landscape linoleum plantings, and nary a not-so-dandy lion to be seen – all thanks to this simple solution. Life was wonderful there – easy, simple, and so green. The Company was governed by a federation of people called the Knights of the Roundup Table. The leader, King Gly of Phosate, wanted all his subjects to know that he and his Knights had everything well in-hand; there was no reason to think or even question this new existence. All was well and always will be well. Should a problem pop up, the Knights had Dr. Spin and his merry band of Fixers on retainer to take care of any trifles.

Soon, the people found there was no need to think for themselves anymore. All of life’s decisions were to be resolved by the Company because the Company knew best and was always right. All the while, novel uses for the Company’s Magic Elixir were dreamed up, and it continued to be lavished on the countryside. The townsfolk venerated this new way of life the Company had bestowed upon them. Having all their thinking done for them, they became dreamily compliant and docile as fawns. As life became more and more simplified, these citizens evolved into a new nature of populace: the Consumerables. King Gly of Phosate, being the astute leader he was, saw that it was good for the Company to pacify the Consumerables, so he bestowed upon them the entitlement of More. More hours at work to get More; More house to fit More in it; More land for More lawn and More landscape linoleum; More and bigger cars to look and feel like More. And of course, More Magic Elixir. So, on life went, blissful and oblivious.

Yes, the people of Mount Santo seemed to not have a care in the world. Life continued to be easy, simple and so green. Then one day, a rival clan led by the cunning and rapacious Sir Mugwort of Artemesia and his doctrine of Invasivism insinuated itself among the countryside of Mount Santo. This scourge began to slowly but surely pervade the very fabric of life in the once nirvanic Mount Santo. Narcoticized by their sloth and desire for More, the Consumerables barely noticed the changes happening about them. Besides, the Company was in charge; the Company would take care of “it”.

The Knights of the Roundup Table, now bloated with unfathomable wealth and hubris, were incapable of confronting this new and insidious threat to their supremacy. Even the mighty King Gly of Phosate was short to the task. The very complacency of the Consumerables that the Company so craftily instilled over its fiefdom was at stake. Frantically, they chose to use the very power they infested upon their minions: More. More and More Magic Elixir. This, at first, seemed to help. Invasivism was slowed but not stopped. Then the unthinkable happened: it stopped working. In fact, Invasivism was getting stronger and stronger, in spite of the copious amounts of the once tried-and-true Magic Elixir that was smeared over the landscape. Sir Mugwort of Artemesia enlisted the dregs of society to spread his blight of Invasivism. He Knighted Sir Stiltgrass to spread thickly and rapidly across the land. Knave Burning Bush, with his incendiary vitriol, was taking over more and more of the coveted landscape linoleum of the Conusmerables. The diabolical duo, Bitter and Sweet wrapped themselves like pythons around the once pristine and homogenized landscapes of Mount Santo. All the while, the Company, incapable of change, tried with new and insidious ways to thwart the aggressor with More and More Magic Elixir.

Suddenly, the Consumerables began to sicken and some of them died. Young and old alike began to fall prey to this novel ailment that no one could understand. The numb existence of More was finally exacting its toll, and the Company began to lose its grip on its citizenry. Slowly, and without the yoke of pacifism the Company had perpetrated upon them previously, they began to develop independent thought again. Some of the Consumerables noticed that most of the Herbicidalists were not as affected by this strange new malady and they wondered why.

It was discovered the one great difference was that most of the Magic Elixir was foisted upon the Consumerables and not on the Herbicidalists. Dr. Spin and the Fixers, seeing the once all-powerful Company beginning to unravel, looked to survive. They decided to turn and feed on the hands that once fed them: the now impotent Company. One by one, court cases decided against the Company and the Herbicidalists. In a last-ditch attempt to survive, the Company allowed itself to be devoured, hoping to hide inside, like Lyme Disease spirochetes take refuge in red blood cells. With lots of money to be made, Dr. Spin and his Fixers grew more cunning with each victory. Finally, as the Company fiddled, Mount Santo burned. Now Mount Santo is laid Bayer.

A fairy tale yes, but sadly not too far from reality. I took my own “trip” through that kind of fabled existence when I adopted the pop culture mantra of the day, “Better Living Through Chemicals”. The day was the early 80’s and I was new in business, finally for myself.

To start at the beginning, I was a real Nature Boy and I loved trees. Better yet, I loved woods. And meadows. And mountains. And swamps. More than ten years earlier, at the ripe young age of 12 years old, I was indentured to the next-door neighbor’s landscaping company. My dad, a former potato farmer in northern Maine, had instilled that good ole’ Maine Work Ethic in me. I mowed lawns, weeded and edged beds, and raked leaves – mountains of leaves. Every day after school, on most weekends, and every summer vacation was spent sweating blood for my boss. This was before the advent of rotary mowers and leaf blowers. Mowing was done with a “reel mower” called a Locke mower, made by hand in Bridgeport, CT. Although it was supposed to be self-propelled, it was often necessary to push this sixty-inch cast iron and steel monstrosity up hills and through wet spots. Lawn trimming was accomplished with a push mower and a scissors-like hand trimmer. I still remember my throbbing forearms after hand trimming long fence lines and the blisters from the rake handle in my sweaty hands because it was uncool to wear gloves back then.

I got really good at these mundane tasks and thought of myself a “professional”. Or so I thought. A day in July came when my boss finally let me do a job totally on my own. I was too young to drive, so he dropped me off and picked me up later. The job was to “prune” Mrs. Jones’ foundation plantings, weed and edge the beds, and apply mulch for the finishing touch. I use the word “prune” in parenthesis because I didn’t know the first thing about pruning, as this story will elucidate. Hand shears were the pruning tool of the day and I used them to render perfectly natural plants – Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Yews and the like – to look like symmetrical boxes and meatballs, replete with lower limbs scalped into a vase shape. I weeded all the weeds and created a wavy and exaggerated edge, dug deep with the halfmoon-shaped hand edger, so deep that I cut many of the roots of the plants I just pruned within an inch of their lives. I stood back and beheld this travesty and declared it a job well done. My boss would be proud. Actually, he was pleased. That should have been a clue.

Next spring comes around and I am mowing Mrs. Jones’ lawn – the same Mrs. Jones where I did the shrub butchery ten months earlier. Again, I stepped back to pat my ego with my fine accomplishment. Only this time the foundation plantings of the houses on either side of Mrs. Jones’ property were erupting in bloom and the shrubs I so meticulously “pruned” had only a smattering of flowers and the yews looked like they were dying. Huh. How can a job that looked so good not even a year ago look so awful now? You guessed it: back in July I “pruned” off most of the flower buds and removed too much foliage from the yews. And those plants were upset, upset with me. I truly felt it. Some “professional” I was. Ironically, my boss didn’t know any better either. I wanted to learn from real professionals.

I don’t know where I heard about it, but there was something called an arboretum a few towns south of where I lived. Still not old enough to drive and too far to bicycle, I begged and begged my boss to drive me to the arboretum where there were landscaping classes taught at night by real teachers. He thought I’d lose interest quickly, so he agreed. I loved it! From the very first day I was mesmerized at what there was to learn; that I could learn. My boss was less than thrilled. He thought education was for “others”. Lucky for me there was a man in class who owned a landscaping company not far from my house and was willing to give me a ride to class and home again every Wednesday night. I learned and I studied, sucking up the knowledge like dry soil in a downpour. High school didn’t do much for me and I wasn’t college material, but I excelled at this kind of learning.

The teachers taught me to be aware of weeds, insects and diseases and to “control” them as soon as possible. I learned about aphids, that they are all female until more are needed; that cedar trees can spoil apples; that dandelions are slippery and can hurt a child if they slip on one. Then, one of the most mysterious things I learned about – pesticides – can “control” all those bad plants, diseases and bugs. “Wow, how groovy is this!” I thought. Soon, chemicals with cool names like Methoxychlor, Cygon, Metasystox-R, and Thiram began to roll off my tongue.

These were the tools that were going to make me a great tree and landscape “professional”. So many ounces of this, mixed with that, applied at ten-day intervals will thwart those nasty pests and make me a landscape hero. This feeling of power over Nature was truly intoxicating. They were right: Better Living Through Chemicals! I soon became the youngest CT-licensed Arborist in the state at seventeen years young. My Custom Grounds Supervisory license followed shortly after. Now armed with knowledge and science and licenses to use them, I was out to “control” everything and anything, from the ground-up. The sky was the limit. Or so I thought. In all my early education I never once heard the term, “Beneficial Organism”. Plants kept getting sick and required new and ever more powerful chemicals to keep them alive. That should have been a clue.

That was it. A turning point. The beginning of my enlightenment. I now knew that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I thought, ‘This has to change’. Another thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to learn much more than how to work hard from my boss. I left my boss’ employ and started out on my own. That was 1982.

Around this time a new chemical concoction came on the market. It was an herbicide that “destroyed” anything you sprayed it on. No more “control”; out and out death was the new game. What made this invention so novel is that it used a new mode of action to kill a plant down to its roots with very short residual action. We were told that soil organisms would render it harmless by breaking it down into harmless elements. What’s more is that it did all this in ten days or less. Miraculous. For the first time I could spray this material to kill everything, then ten days later be able to plant directly in the same soil without the new plants being affected. Another very hip thing was its name: Roundup. Wow, the first chemical without a chemical name. That nice, Italian-sounding company, Monsanto, really had it going for them. Or so I thought.

People from Monsanto were sent out to teach us “professionals” how to use this wonder herbicide to our (and their) best advantage. I soon began to use it by the gallon for everything from weeds in driveways to total lawn renovations, to meadow site preparation, to invasive plant removal. They even have a formulation that can be used in wetlands with an equally cool name along the same theme: Rodeo. The difference is one of the secret ingredients – which Roundup and Rodeo have many – a surfactant that was responsible for killing amphibians, was removed. Roundup took the thinking out of herbicide use. It even came in a “Tip & Pour” jug that virtually eliminated spillage and made formulating so easy and no need for a measuring cup. It was so easy to use and worked so well on so many plants that it felt like I hit a home run every time I used it. It was so convenient to use because of few restrictions and it is very successful at killing plants of almost all kinds. The biggest draw of all was what it said on the label: Relatively Non-Toxic.

I am still shocked and ashamed to admit that I used to use Paraquat, an herbicide so deadly to mammals that it is the suicide elixir of choice in India. One seventieth of a teaspoon is a lethal dose for a 150-pound man. Now I could do the same job with something “relatively non-toxic”. Joy! Rapture! Or so I thought. Off came the gloves and the respirator and the Tyvek suit. Short sleeves and shorts became the garb of the day. I was totally lulled into an audacious sense of indestructability, as this stuff was “safe” to use. As Jim Jones put it, “I drank the Kool Aid”. Monsanto was so good at marketing Roundup that clients began asking for it by name. I would bet serious money, (and I am not a chance-taker with money), that at least half the garages and sheds of the typical American consumer contain Roundup in some form.

The truth is now out, although it is being spun by the smartest people money can buy. Roundup causes cancer. Period. It is important to remember that Glyphosate is NOT Roundup; it is only one of the major ingredients in the concoction we know as Roundup. Roundup, with all its top-secret adjuvants, synergists, emulsifiers and “inert ingredients”, render Roundup many more times toxic than straight Glyphosate. There is now a homeowner version of Roundup that incorporates another herbicide to make it work faster. Monsanto knows the consumers’ lust for “Instant Gratification” and spoon feeds it to us any way it has to, to sell more Roundup. Multi-billion dollar lawsuits are being awarded to plaintiffs who suffered losses due to using Roundup. But Lawyers, Guns and Money (a nod to Warren Zevon) are holding up these settlements, buying time for Bayer/Monsanto to figure new ways to slither out of these comeuppances.

I am not a religious man by any stretch of the term, but if there is an Antichrist, Monsanto (and now Bayer) is it. Speaking of Bayer, the sweet company that brought us Bayer Aspirin – the wonder drug – has bought Monsanto. Why would a respectful (at least for the time being) company like Bayer with such positive consumer recognition, get into such a filthy bed with Monsanto? I’m no economist but I think Bayer bought Monsanto because Monsanto is a cash cow in the short term and a huge write-off in the long term. I also suspect that down the road the same fate will befall Bayer, with its exposure to its own Neonicotinoid evils: Colony Collapse Disorder (pollinators and others), near extermination of the iconic Monarch Butterfly (along with excessive use of GMO Bt), suspected estrogen production and nervous system disorders in humans.

Did I mention that I was a Nature Boy? Throughout the many thousands of gallons and pounds of synthetic pesticides that I personally applied, the feeling that something was wrong never left me. So many missed clues. I began to feel the same way when I witnessed those sickly plants that I had mis-pruned and almost killed. I began to feel like this almost every day. Again, I knew something had to change. Armed with a plethora of one-sided conventional knowledge, I was still ignorant. Although I no longer pruned flower buds off plants unintentionally, I still had no idea about the harm I was causing. The same feeling that prodded me to learn how to be a conventional synthetic nozzlehead propelled me away from such misinformation and toward a new mindset and an old personal ethic. It appears that I am still a Nature Boy, but a little more grown up and my mind a little more open. I have repented my past actions to every organism I “controlled” with narcoticized numbness and have devoted a considerable portion of my life to inform people of the ills of my past ways and how to avoid them. I have slowly come to peace with who I was, who I am today, and who I am becoming. Today, my work consists of guiding landowners and business owners toward organic and ecological solutions and away from the thoughtless, reductionist thinking of the day. Because of this I have never slept better in my life.

In closing, if I may offer a few pieces of free advice (and we know what that’s worth!): 1) Disdain the moniker “Consumer”. The term reduces us to units of measure required by corporations to produce their obscene profits, environmental destruction, the income inequality gap, and chains us to mindless, insatiable Capitalism. We are flesh and blood, bones and muscle, minds, hearts and spirits, not consumers; 2) Don’t drink their Kool Aid! Think for yourself. There are a lot of Mount Santo’s out there. Be individualistic but work in community. Learn how to work with different opinions. If everyone is doing it, RUN in the opposite direction! Find a place where you can stop and think about who and how you want to be, and then do it; 3) Go back to what used to work, although it will require more thought and work, but will align with your ethics; 4) Look for clues. Use your gut sense. Always be on the lookout for “the hook” and for opportunities to make life better.

With respect,

Mike Nadeau