Feeling the Affects of Chernobyl in Idaho

Watching HBO’s miniseries about the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, I thought of my grandmother Verna.  She died of uterine cancer in 1961 at the age of 52.  I remember overhearing my grandfather and uncles discussing the radioactivity involved in the cobalt therapy used to treat her cancer.  How could such a poisonous substance heal Grandma, I wondered?  In the end cobalt therapy didn’t help Grandma and may have hurt her.  Thus began my fear of radioactive poisoning.  Not that my imagination needed any help on that score.  I grew up in the Atomic Age.  Maybe every generation has a dystopian fear.  Today we worry about surviving climate change, but during the Cold War the possibility of nuclear holocaust seemed just as imminently threatening, if not more so.

Many times as a young girl I passed by the bank building in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana, and saw the distinctive black and yellow “fan” posted on the outside of the bank indicating a fallout shelter in the bank basement. I saw this same sign not too far from where I now live, in the Idaho desert north of Shoshone.  At one time Mammoth Cave, a large lava tube, served as a fallout shelter for Idahoans.  I eventually learned that though a shelter might help, radioactive fallout is a vaporous ghost that haunts long after the initial flash of a bomb.

Late in the 1970’s, the nation seemed gripped by different nuclear fears, this time having to do with faulty nuclear reactors.  In 1979 a movie called The China Syndrome was released and with it, a new term joined the vernacular.   It was said that a reactor core could overheat and melt down so far into the earth, it melted clear to China.  Eerily, not three weeks after the movie came out, life seemed to imitate art when one of three reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania went into partial meltdown. It was the most significant accident in U.S. nuclear power plant history, ranking a 5 out of 7 points on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

The core reactor fire at Chernobyl in 1986 ranked a full 7 on the INE scale.  My husband and I watched the evening news, stunned that day after day emergency crews in the Ukraine were unable to contain the fire and with it, the plumes of radioactive gasses and other material sent skyward.  No one ventured a guess as to the actual number of people affected by Chernobyl’s fallout.  I thought of Grandma Verna.  Sometimes the damage from radioactive poisoning revealed itself only much later with untreatable cancers.

One evening during the Chernobyl disaster, television news anchors reported that traces of radioactivity had been found in milk and dairy products as far away from Ukraine as Western Europe.  Even more frightening, they said Chernobyl fallout had penetrated the jet stream, and radioactivity had been detected in Hawaii, with the expectation that it would soon reach the western edge of the U.S.

I tried to dismiss this ominous news, thinking what were the chances that a nuclear accident in Russia would ever affect me and my family thousands of miles away in Idaho?  A day or so later I walked out to my garden in a light drizzle to cut some spinach for supper.  Then, per usual, my husband and I sat down to watch the evening news.  The newscaster announced the Chernobyl fallout had officially landed in America.  The area of heaviest radioactive concentration (though nothing to worry about, he assured his audience) was somewhere northwest of Salt Lake City, Utah.  The light rain this area was experiencing seemed to be bringing traces of fallout with it from the upper atmosphere.

I looked at Dale and knew we were both thinking the same thing:  we’d probably just eaten a radioactive spinach salad.  Of course, I thought miserably, Chernobyl fallout had to land here and not in some god-forsaken stretch of Nevada.  Maybe Grandma Verna’s long ago cobalt treatments were a foreshadowing.  Dale though, had a decidedly lighter view of the situation: “Let’s turn off the lamp and see if we light up in the dark.”  Not funny, I shook my head at him, not funny.

 

Image Credit:  Fallout Shelter  Image Credit:  Chernobyl

In the hospital . . .

I knew a man once who said the only reason to go to a hospital was to die.  I thought about what he said when my 86-year-old mother was admitted to the hospital this week due to shortness of breath and a rapid heart rate.  After spending some time with my mother there, I thought this man was completely off the mark about hospitals. Hospitals are more like gas stations than eternal rest stops.  People are mainly here for tune-ups and repairs. Then they go on their way.  And this hospital, like any good vehicle shop, was full of young, smart technicians using complex, computerized equipment, to do their repairs.  I was impressed, and more than a little intimidated.

Jack, a tall, slim nurse, probably close to thirty, tapped the veins in my mother’s arm looking for a good one to attach an IV.  Though his hair needed a wash and cut, his hand movements were quick and efficient.  He apologized when he had to stick another needle in mom’s arm to add an additional IV line.  Mom sighed and I patted her feet where they lay at the end of the bed, gently reminding her, “A feint-hearted warrior never won the battle field.” Jack didn’t look up from his work, but I saw a smile cross his face.

When Jack left, another young nurse with blue streaks running through her hair came into our room, and placed what looked like water wings, flotation devices for beginning swimmers, around my mother’s forearms.  Then she turned to a mounted computer and began rapidly typing.  Occasionally she glanced at the monitor above mom’s head, filled with line graphs and blinking numbers in different colors.  Mom’s “vitals” were all there: heart rate, oxygen level etc.

“Is my mother taking a swim?”

“Pardon?” the blue-haired girl turned to me.  I pointed to the water wings.

“Oh?” she nodded understanding. “Those are blood pressure monitors.”

I watched these highly skilled professionals wistfully, with their youthful flair and swagger.  I’d love to know what they knew, and be a part of the kind of energy that was everywhere apparent in the hospital.  I looked over at mom lying in her bed.  She once was a nurse.  Did she have these same thoughts?  But mom was quiet and seemed more relieved than anything else.  She’d been sick for a week or so, and was glad to be in a place where people could take care of her.  My brother and his wife came, and then the doctor, a petite woman with iron-grey hair and tiger-striped eye-glasses hanging from jesses around her neck.  She was one of the few doctors on duty this Sunday afternoon.  I saw her constantly checking on the status of her other patients using her cell phone.

“Mrs. Holland can you tell me a little bit about your shortness of breath,” she asked mom.

“Mom has terrible allergies . . .” I began to explain.

Without looking up from the old-school note pad she was scribbling on, the doctor waved her flat-palmed hand at me. “Thank you, but let’s let your mother speak for herself, shall we?”

I shrunk back in my seat becoming the observer I was meant to be in this tableau.  Overall, my sojourn at the hospital with mom was a humbling experience.  The man who told me the only reason to go to the hospital was to die—was wrong.  Yet in another way, he had a point.  Confronted by such a large complex institution, even one with a mission of compassion and healing, a patient (and their family) must in some sense, die to themselves.  They must give over their will in order that the hospital staff might help them.   It’s not really a devil’s bargain; it’s one of mercy—and that of course, makes all the difference.

 

Image Credit:  modern hospital room

Di and Dale’s Egg-cellent Adventure

To those of you who ask why raise chickens, I say why not?

Chickens have many superior qualities to commend them, and though they’re not pets, they don’t bark annoyingly like dogs do.   Plus chickens lay eggs.  Dogs don’t lay eggs.  Also, chickens are very efficient animals.  They have one of the highest feed conversion ratios (FCR) of any livestock.  Feed conversion ratios look at the difference between how much it takes to feed an animal versus how much food that animal provides.  Chickens will eat your table scraps and turn them into protein-rich eggs.  If you don’t know what to do with that watermelon rind—feed it to the chickens.  What about that tub of soured yogurt in the fridge?  Chickens love yogurt.  They even eat ground rock.  It’s called grit, and it helps them digest their food better.

We’ve raised chickens on our farm on and off for years and though they’re interesting, funny creatures, they do have their challenges.  One time I had a problematic hen who was a real nester.  When it came time to gather eggs, she wouldn’t leave her nest box and scratch in the yard with the other hens.  She just wanted to sit in the box, murmuring contentedly.  I tried to surreptitiously wrap my arm around the box to grab her eggs from behind.  But she’d have none of my foolishness.  She’d squawk and flap her wings indignantly like I was some stranger with my hand up her dress.

Chickens are generally peaceable, but like humans, they’re keenly aware of social hierarchies. 

I was reminded of this fact once when I taught school and attended a faculty meeting.  I understood the “pecking order” among faculty members, but one of our new, young teachers, did not.  She had the temerity to make an innocent suggestion–without vetting her idea first with faculty leaders.

“What? Where’d you come up with that stinker?”

“That’s a dumb idea.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!”

I tried to defend her, rebuking fellow faculty members by saying they were all acting like a bunch of chickens picking at the youngest and newest member of our group. It was only later that I realized what a bizarre comment this was.  My only defense is I had chickens on the brain, one of the few downsides of being in the chicken-raising business.

Chickens come in variety of breeds and colors:  Rhode Island Red, Plymouth Rock, Leghorn (famously popularized by the cartoon character with the southern drawl, Foghorn Leghorn). 

Eggs come in different colors too, but there’s a popular myth about egg shell color.  Some people believe brown eggs are more nutritious than white eggs.  White eggs can be just as nutritious if they’re laid by a “pastured” hen as opposed to a caged hen.  This is what really makes the difference in terms of egg nutrients.

One of the best parts of raising chickens is sharing the eggs with friends and family.  I’ll give Nancy (an older friend who is careful with her diet and prefers organic) a dozen.  Elizabeth next door needs my eggs to bake her delicious homemade cupcakes and Danish pastries.  Simon is always in a hurry when he goes to work in the morning.  He likes to break one of my eggs over a piece of bread and microwave it for a quick breakfast.  Overall, being in the chicken business has been for both me and my husband, an egg-cellent adventure.

 

Image Credit:  Diana Hooley

 

 

 

Hanging on to Democracy

I was sitting at a stoplight on Capital Boulevard in Boise, Idaho when I heard a loud crash in the rear of my car.  I turned around and saw the hatchback window of my Prius was shattered.  I immediately pulled over and looked for the rock that did the damage.  When the policeman arrived he just shook his head, wondering how and why this incident occurred.

“Could it be a meteor?  Maybe a little chunk of meteor rock fell from the sky into my back window,” I suggested.

He looked at me doubtfully.  “I guess that could happen.”

“What about this?” I pointed to a mangled bumper sticker laying in the glass debris on the floor of the trunk.  It read:  “Blue Girl, Red State.”  Since Idaho is a more conservative state, maybe someone took offense at my politics and threw a rock at my car.

I thought my bumper sticker was fairly innocent, and I liked the colorful irony behind the slogan:  blue girl/red state.  My bumper sticker was not nearly as inflammatory as one I saw a few weeks ago:  “MAGA—Morons Are Governing America.”  And my bumper sticker definitely pales in comparison to a road-side sign I sped by on a Sunday drive: “Democrats are baby-killers.”

The policeman shifted his eyes, obviously uncomfortable with my inferring the busted window might be a political act and said, “Looks like we’ll never know.  I don’t think there’s any reason to file an accident report.”

I’ve thought about this incident, which happened a couple of years ago, many times watching the increasingly vicious political battles in Washington between Democrats and Republicans.  Our first president, George Washington, worried about partisanship.  In his day political parties were called “factions.” Washington was afraid lawmakers’ allegiance to their political parties would supersede their allegiance to the country as a whole. Compromise and Rule of Law would take a back seat to party politics.  The other side, whether Democrat or Republican, would be characterized and treated as the enemy.

Michigan Republican, Justin Amash, a member of the House of Representatives is currently being punished for his lack of party loyalty by withdrawing his support of President Trump.  He’s now being maligned with the label RINO (Republican in name only) just as many Democrats are branded DINO (Democrat in name only) because they favor a white, male candidate for president over a minority female. This kind of rigid thinking is evident on both sides of the aisle.  I saw a post on Facebook today with a picture of a Native American chief wearing a headband of feathers in his hair.

Below the picture it read:  “The right wing and the left wing are both from the same bird”–meaning we’re all Americans.  We all want our country to do well and prosper.

Beside me as I write this blog is a book I’m currently reading called How Democracies Die.  The authors posit that in countries where democracy has failed and authoritarian dictators have risen up, political parties have become so acrimonious they’ll do anything to win and keep power, including elect a flawed leader.  Sadly, there may be a risk of this scenario playing out in our country today.  Representative Amash is not officially on my “team” but if he ran for office in my state, I’d cross party lines to vote for him.  I like his courage.  Sometimes all it takes is a few brave people to turn the tide.

 

 

 

The Veteran’s Cemetery

The sun is shining but my thoughts are dark today.  It might have been the Sunday drive we took to the Veteran’s cemetery.   Who goes for a Sunday drive to a grave yard?  Yet, I’ve always found cemeteries interesting.  The first time I went to Europe I lost my passport wandering in a cemetery outside Exincourt, a little town in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  The cemetery was on the quiet outskirts of the village, as French cemeteries often are, and full of granite tombs and statuary.  These kinds of resting places are called “monumental” cemeteries, this as opposed to our American “lawn” cemeteries.

At the VA cemetery my eyes scanned row upon row of the same simple, white headstones (government issued).  I thought about the difference between soldier grave sites and civilian cemeteries.

Civilian cemeteries are cities of the dead, and like cities of the living, they’re filled with all kinds of colorful characters.  You can see this easily just reading through some of the epitaphs on the headstones: “I told you I was sick,” and “I was hoping for a pyramid.”  A gay veteran buried in a civilian cemetery had engraved on his headstone: “A Gay Vietnam Veteran, When I was in the military they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.”

Names, birth/death dates, and rank are basically the only thing carved on military tablets.  I stood in front of a “Stephen” and a “Rita,” both corporals at one time.  Neither appeared to have died in combat.  I wondered what made them join the military.  I don’t think many young people dream of becoming killing machines.  Rather, they see being in the military as serving their country, or a way to get training in a specialized field without the expense and headache of college.  Perhaps they like all the benefits military service offers, i.e. free funeral, burial, and memorial.

Though people buried in the VA cemetery must have some military experience, it’s a mistake to think this time period of their life defined who they later became.

I know a man and his wife who plan to be cremated and have their ashes scattered over the Memory Garden at the VA cemetery.  And though it’s true the man served during the Viet Nam War era, after that his life took an entirely different path, marrying, moving to the West, and experiencing a long career in education.

Still, those early years of our lives and what happens to us does seem to have some lasting significance. My son is a software developer, but every year or so he gathers together with a few of his Marine buddies to remember those crazy times at Camp Pendleton or stationed in Hawaii—just like college friends do when they look back on dorm life.  I don’t know if my son’s even considered where he wants to be buried yet.  People younger than fifty rarely do.  No one wants to be accused of having a morbid fascination.  But he has the option of a veteran’s burial—an option, by the way, I don’t have.

Memorial Day is almost upon us and with it the VA cemetery, like cemeteries everywhere, will be covered with bouquets of irises, lilacs, and peonies.  The flowers are beautiful and smell good, but I prefer somber, sedate lawns of green grass and hushed breezes, the cemetery—sans holiday. As we slowly drove out of the VA cemetery on Sunday, I thought of an old verse I saw once engraved on a colonial-era headstone in New England.  Apparently, this poem was a popular Puritan epitaph, the words carved right under the skeletons and imps decorating the top of tombstones:

“Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.”

 

Image credit:  Veteran’s Cemetery

 

Out of the Suburbs and Into the Desert

I grew up in a little box of a house in an Indiana suburb.  There were houses on either side of us and one across the street.  As far as the eye could see was a flat landscape littered with driveways and asphalt.  So when I moved West after college, I was in awe of the mountains and deserts.  I still am: all this empty space and rugged beauty.  It never grows old.  Every year when May rolls around and the weather warms up, I feel compelled, like the great explorers of the West, John Muir and John Wesley Powell, to take a look around.

The month of May I call Desert Appreciation Month. The temperatures are still cool enough to make hiking pleasant–and all the wildflowers are in bloom. 

May, with its warmer weather, not only beckons people, but other creatures too. Yesterday, hiking the Wilson Creek Trail I came across a long, patterned bull snake gliding peacefully through the grasses.  The Wilson Creek Trail climbs the Owyhee Mountain front in Idaho.  When I saw the snake of course, I jumped back, startled.

Bull snakes look similar to rattlesnakes and I’ve come across enough rattlesnakes in my desert wanderings that I try not to repeat that experience.

A couple of years ago I was walking in sneakers and shorts along the side of a dirt road when I heard a distinct rattle sound warning me away.  I froze, aware of my exposed legs, and looked down to find a rattlesnake coiled not three feet from me under a sagebrush.  I softly stepped back thinking I really needed to wear boots and long pants hiking around in snake season.

trailhead

On the Wilson Creek hike I crossed several bends in the little ribbon of a stream known as Wilson Creek. 

Apparently, the snow melt coming off the peaks of the 8,000 foot Owyhee Mountains formed the headwaters.  Two hundred or so head of cattle drifted in and around the creek bed blocking my path.  I walked through them keenly aware of bawling and nervous cows worried about their calves.  Cows are generally docile animals but have been known to charge if they think their calves are being threatened.  It was difficult to ignore the damage done to little Wilson Creek by this big herd of cattle.  The banks of the stream were all caved in and the vegetation around stomped down, flattened, and covered with cow pies.  I wondered what this oasis in the high desert would look like minus cows—or at least with fewer cattle feeding from such a fragile stream.

Above me, on the hillside, I saw neat planted rows of crested wheat grass.  No doubt the Bureau of Land Management had tractors drill seeds into the soil, probably hoping to restore such a heavily grazed area.  It always makes me shake my head when I hear ranchers complain about the federal government infringing on their rights.  The government supports ranching in so many ways: including keeping grazing fees phenomenally low ($1.69 a month per cow/calf pair —this as opposed to approximately $25 a month to feed a cow/calf pair on private land).   They not only plant hearty grasses to ensure better pasturing for cattle herds, they also fence miles and miles of pasture—free of charge.

Fortunately, away from the stream bed I noticed plenty of undisturbed native wheat and rye grasses.  I watched their leaves blow gently in the breeze.

“Multiple Use” is a phrase, a paradigm for public lands today.  Multiple use was everywhere evident on the Wilson Creek Trail.  I saw hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders on the trail.

Off in the distance an RZR (a Razor, a crazy-fast, steep-climbing recreational vehicle) drove, dust billowing behind. Still, for all the uses made of the Owyhee Mountain Front that day, it was blissfully quiet the farther I hiked up into the mountains.  I didn’t see a street sign or hear a car honk.  I almost pinched my arm to remind myself I wasn’t dreaming, I wasn’t still living in a dreary Indiana suburb.  No, I was happily awake, enjoying the mountains and deserts of the American West.

 

Image Credits:  Diana Hooley on the Wilson Creek Trail, southwest Idaho

 

Game of Thrones

I’m the only one I know my age who’s a fan of Game of Thrones.  This isn’t really surprising since a recent survey of the show’s fan base revealed that 72% of people watching GoT were 18-29 years-old and almost 82% were male.  While I fit neither of these demographics, my husband, being male, fits one.  But he has the same summation for both Game of Thrones and the Lord of the Rings trilogy:  “Just a bunch medieval-looking people running around chasing each other with swords (bah humbug).”

For a devotee of any work of art, disparaging comments like this are enough to trigger my defenses.  I could say of his love for plants, birds, and all things science:  “It’s the same thing every day, growing, tweeting, and photosynthesizing (boring)”—but I don’t.  I take the high road instead and tell him his old, shriveled-up mind can no longer comprehend all the wonderful nuggets of insight embedded in fantasies like those created by George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones.  Speaking of George R. R. Martin, to understand just what a creative wizard he really is, even though his books and the TV series have a strong appeal for younger adults and take place in a Middle-Age, British-like empire, Martin himself is a 70-year-old New Jersey native (pronounced “New Joi-zy” if you happen to hail from that state).

Some might question these nuggets of insight I’m talking about considering GoT is a fantasy-based work.  Since the story line is all about various kingdoms and their kings and queens warring over the right to be supreme ruler and sit on the Iron Throne, you’d think the theme of GoT would be power and power structures—and it is.  But to my mind this is a very superficial understanding of Game of Thrones.

The genius of Martin’s work is how he blows stereotypes to smithereens and in doing so, gives us again and again, a much more intriguing and broad understanding of the potential human beings have for doing both good and evil.

Women are often the ruthless rulers in Game of Thrones—not the men.  Queen Cersei, always watchful of potential usurpers to her throne, is threatened by her future daughter-in-law, Princess Sansa.  Cersei serves Sansa and all her family notice of her power by beheading the King of the North, Sansa’s father–as Sansa watches from a castle window.  There are many shocking, yet interesting plot twists in GoT, aided and abetted by these stereotype-blowing characters previously mentioned.  The most intelligent and thoughtful person in Game of Thrones is the least physically powerful:  Prince Tyrion, a dwarf.  Diminutive Lady Arya is a dangerous assassin, and the big, lummox Samwell Tarly plays against type as a perceptive librarian.  Jon Snow is an illegitimate bastard and cast out of his home, ordered to command a wall of ice in a frozen outpost.  The wall is intended to keep heathens called the Wildings away from the other civilized kingdoms.  Yet Jon Snow, unbeknownst to himself or anyone else, is the true hero and the key to the mystery behind Game of Thrones.

For me, Game of Thrones ask some serious questions and poses a certain conundrum which I think is applicable to our world today.  GoT asks whether or not all these kingdoms can lay down their swords, their need for control and power, and work together against a greater evil, death personified in the White Walkers.  The White Walkers are frozen, bloodless zombies that have the potential to wipe out humanity.

Repeatedly, the kings and queens are warned:  stop fighting among yourselves.  Winter is coming.

It’s not too much of a stretch for me to see the analogy in our real world and our current political landscape: we need to stop the sniping over lesser issues and address the zombie in our own living room.  The climate is changing and the atmosphere is heating up.  Species, including our own, are at risk. Be forewarned:  summer is coming–and it may be a long and a hot one if we don’t act before it’s too late.

Image Credit:  Game of Thrones