In 1976 my friend Joseph and I happened upon an abandoned 15-room farmhouse near our hometown in New Jersey. It was obvious that no maintenance had been done on the place for years. The yards, outbuildings, and orchards — as well as the stone walls of the home itself — were covered with thick-stemmed poison ivy and Canadian thistle. However, despite the fact that thousands of beer bottles — from decades of adolescent rites of passage — crunched under our boots as we waded through the weeds, an air of suspended time hung about the old place.
The carriage house still contained stores of wooden wheels and parts, as well as the harnesses, bridles, saddles, and brushes necessary to maintain work and leisure horses. A pair of tool sheds — surrounded by discarded antique farm machinery — still held slowly rusting implements. The milk house was filled with yellowing dairy records, telling the stories of lean and prosperous years in orderly columns. Birds nested in the lids of milk cans and in ivy branches, while the silo had become a six-story high-rise, alive with winged inhabitants. Rabbits, snakes, opossums and frogs had been at home in the kitchen, and a feral cat watched us from a yellow fieldstone step.
Renting an Old Farmhouse
We learned that — over a period of 20 years — a large family-run operation had absorbed the homestead while acquiring a spread of four 200-acre farms. The patriarch of the business looked at us with great skepticism when we inquired about renting the old place that he’d planned to bulldoze — and firmly said no. Apparently he had a change of heart, however, because several days later he called to offer us the house and six surrounding acres for $90 a month with the understanding that maintenance and repairs would be our responsibility.
Joseph and I had not, at that time, made a formal commitment to get married. We’d talked about doing so — sometimes casually, sometimes more seriously — but the farm seemed to make the decision for us. We moved here, as husband and wife, in the changeable month of October and hastily set about making the absolutely essential repairs, while getting rid of years of accumulated trash. As we worked, hundreds of geese flew south over our heads, seeming to urge us on with our winter preparations. My two daughters, overwhelmed by the — to them — vast amount of space available to roam in, stayed close to the house for weeks.
It was soon easy for us, though, to accept the old-fashioned (but new to us) lifestyle. We had only to search the decaying outbuildings to find the necessary tools: pitchforks, shovels, rasps, and what have you. There were even stacks of handmade windowpanes stored in the carriage-house attic, which we used to replace those that had been broken during the years of neglect. We changed jobs, changed roles and our lives took on the peace of quiet simplicity. When our beautiful daughter Jericho was born, we even delivered her at home.
As we brought the farm back to life, our goals also began to take shape. We decided we wanted to educate ourselves to the point where we could become teachers of alternative ways of living in order to help others learn to be more self-reliant and confident. We were aware even then, however, that the farm could never become our hoped-for school: Its proximity to the two Salem and two Hope Creek nuclear plants (along with the spent-fuel storage sites for those facilities) ruled out making it our permanent home. Yet deep down inside, neither of us had any real plans to leave. Our rented farm, you see, had us by the heart.
Nevertheless, we knew that if we were ever to help others as we’d like to do, we needed more education ourselves, so we both went back to college. Since it’s been shown that gardening helps reduce stress, clears thinking, and produces clear and concrete rewards, I decided to enroll in a horticultural therapy program. Joseph majored in construction technology, with a concentration on solar and energy-efficient building.
We attended school during the autumn and winter terms and spent our spring and summer seasons chopping wood, gardening, and preserving food. Over a period of three years, Joseph restored the ancient apple trees to bearing, the long-neglected pears began to produce large and sweet fruit again, our chickens ran free, returning to their boxes daily to lay eggs with dark yellow yolks, two Alpine goats arrived to supply our dairy needs and my husband took work as a cabinetmaker to earn the little cash we required. (Our family of five lived comfortably last year on a total of $3,500.)
Still clearing away the debris of neglect, we uncovered flower gardens and walkways of vinca minor, yellow day lilies, flags, tulips, daffodils, jack-in-the-pulpit, dogtooth violets, grape hyacinths, poet narcissus and ferns. Flowering goldenrain trees, dogwood and lilacs seemed to grow everywhere. This farm became a paradise for us. Our lives were in order, our educational plans were progressing, and it was easy to ignore the “snakes” in our Garden of Eden. However, we knew the dangers were present, and we were foolish not to have paid them more attention.
Signs of Trouble on the Old Farm
The trouble really began the first spring we were here. A pair of red-tailed hawks had made a practice of hunting in the back asparagus field early every evening. I would sit at my desk in the second-floor reading room, looking out over my garden and the fields, watching the hawks and recording the day’s events in my journal. Then one evening a small red and white airplane came instead, spraying the field while performing its own graceful — and somehow frighteningly hawk-like — curves and banks. Bi-weekly, until the middle of July, the plane returned, but I never did see the hawks again.
Our landlord had hired a young man to do all the ground spraying. The lad would drive up the lane with a monstrous red machine jerking along behind the tractor. The implement was caked with a hard crust, the product of years of residual chemicals, but Joey blithely ate and drank as he treated the fields. I made an attempt to talk to him about some precautions I felt he could take — such as wearing a respirator and postponing his snacks — but he responded to my “silliness” by spraying our beehives and the recovering apple trees. Soon, the hundreds of peeper frogs that had announced the approach of each evening disappeared from the farm.
Later, while visiting the dump where the remains of the original dairy barn had been hauled years before, Joseph found some discarded pesticide containers casually thrown away, though their labels clearly set forth instructions for disposing of them safely. He took care to follow the directions, only to find more empties the next time he returned to salvage hinges and ironwork from the old barn timbers. The “game” continued all that summer. One day, while paying the rent, I spoke to our landlord about the situation: He suggested that we simply not go down there anymore.
We had yet another early warning, too: A beautiful stand of hardwoods adjoins the fields in which our home stands and it was obviously the source for many of the original yard plants and house timbers. The children loved to go exploring in the forest and splashing in the fast-running stream that winds among the trees. Then one day, we found a red slime, which smelled like gasoline, covering the still pool areas where the children liked to play. I called the local health department, only to be told that yes, the stream was “officially” contaminated, but that there was no cause for concern. We never returned to the swimming holes.
Surprisingly, two summers back the spraying stopped. I was pregnant at the time and — as you’d imagine — quite relieved! We thought our landlord had finally seen how unproductive the chemicals were, since the insect pests always seemed to return in greater strength following the treatments. Local health problems had also begun to crop up. For example, the owner’s grandson had developed a throat tumor, and the surgery to remove it from his vocal cords was extensive and delicate.
However, we soon found that our reprieve had nothing to do with health or spray-resistant insects. Rather, the government had given the area farmers a drought subsidy, allowing them to file for funds for “lost” crops — and as the tomatoes ripened and the soybeans matured, the tractors came and plowed most of them under.
Radioactive Leak in Salem, New Jersey
In early 1981, one of the Salem nuclear plants suffered a radioactive leak, which continued for eight hours before it was reported to the state police. At first, the message was “garbled,” and the police assumed it was a hoax. Several hours later, they were again notified: This time, they assumed it was a test. I was unaware of the leak until my children, who had not been permitted outside for recess, returned from school with the details. I stood there staring at my daughters, at their hands, feet, shoes, the yard, the doorknob. Everything looked the same, but — I wondered — were we all contaminated with this invisible killer? What were the symptoms of radiation sickness? Would the day’s events rear up years later in the form of cancers and miscarriages? It was the very first time I’d really faced up to the fact of living near a nuclear facility.
Of course, I do understand the community’s acceptance of the power plants. For one thing, it’s impossible to see, hear, or smell a leak. And many of the area people who work for the utilities are earning excellent wages for the first time in their lives. In addition, the school district’s budget has benefited greatly from the increased tax base, even to the extent of allowing wall-to-wall carpeting and drapes to be put in all the classrooms. And nuclear-generated revenues have afforded this township — once among the lowest on New Jersey’s income ladder — its own ski resort. There are public swimming pools, new fire equipment, municipal buildings with indoor gardens, and huge community beer busts — but not one alert system to let people know what to do in the event of a disaster.
Losing Faith in the Pastoral Dream
Our deep-rooted fantasies about staying on the farm indefinitely were shattered by the news of that first leak. Once we’d finished our schooling, we decided, we would leave the area. I wrote to the Department of Agriculture in Washington to inquire about farm financing and possible locations of productive land, and — in return — received some very encouraging information plus the name and address of a local representative who would help us go about choosing a farm.
We made an appointment and enthusiastically presented our plans for grains, solar and wind energy, and aquaculture. In response, he talked about the “old” farm families, about the fact that no new farms were being financed anywhere and about the need for 10 solid years of experience in modern agricultural techniques — not to mention a lot of capital up front — for anyone undertaking the kind of venture we had in mind. We scooped up his literature and left. When we looked over the material at home, we discovered why all the local farmers seemed to be buying beauty salons, travel agencies, campgrounds and riding academies. The government position seemed to be that it was all but impossible for a farmer to make a profit!
PAID TO POISON
We had been surprised when the drought was subsidized, but we were horrified at the announcement, in the spring of 1981, that spraying programs would be aided by public funds. The owners began to use massive amounts of pesticides and herbicides. When Joey began dragging the new, larger (but already residue-covered) spray monster through our yard, the airplane was already swooping overhead to provide total ground coverage while the insects continued to flash back in what seemed to be ever increasing numbers.
Joseph and I hurried our preparations, really frightened now at the speed with which our home was becoming uninhabitable. Then one morning I heard the spray plane coming from nearby Bridgeport. Because its usual procedure was to pass over the farm, turn, and set up its pattern to spray the back acreage of asparagus, I knew I had time to retrieve my little daughter from her spot beneath the flowering poplars, but not enough time to put the goats away.
I had Jericho in my arms when I realized that the plane was descending too soon and too fast. Within seconds we were covered with the sweet-smelling dry rain. Hugging my child tightly, I ran for the house through the swirling chemicals, past the violets, the grape arbors, the broken picket fence, the Tonka dump truck all coated now. Shivering, I jumped under the shower and scrubbed until I felt we must be clean, but murky footprints still followed me across the wide, planked floors. We took another shower — with the shampoo running discolored suds down Jericho’s face — and another and then one more. When the hot water was gone, we stood beneath the cold spray, Jericho clinging to me in bewilderment. Exhausted, I dressed her, and we sat in our favorite chair, holding each other without speaking.
The plane was gone. There was silence. Jericho became aware of it first: the absolute stillness in a place where, for the past week, the birds –wrens, robins, doves, indigo buntings, catbirds, goldfinches, mockingbirds — had been noisily teaching their young to fly. I looked for the first time out of the chemical-splashed windows. The entire farm had been transformed. I was frightened at first and then enraged!
For two days the dust covered the farm, and we couldn’t allow the children to go outside. Then on Saturday it began to rain. By Monday, the spray was gone from sight, but the farm had been horribly altered.
I spoke with the owner, the pilot, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Pesticides. All told me that I should expect the spraying to continue for the rest of the season, there are no restrictions and the chemicals — they assured me — are completely harmless.
The farm’s wildlife, and our own animals, tell a different story, though. The hummingbirds that had built their delicate nests in the hollyhocks lie dead, covered with chemicals and bottlenose flies. Only the blackbirds are visible here now — preening their spray-splashed feathers — along with several doves that can no longer fly. When I pick them up, their soft underfeathers come out in my hands. The ladybugs and mantids have been replaced by flies and cabbage moths, all decorated with the familiar dusty specks. Most of the rabbits have fled, too. The remaining few move slowly, and their fur is dull. Even my nanny goat has been affected: She was brown and white last week. Now her coat is almost solid white.
Just today, our local paper reported that irate citizens are asking the township to spray their buttonwoods with Sevin to fight gypsy moths.
At sunset I watched the barn owl, which has been nesting in the big tree at my daughters’ window, leave the farm. We must leave, too, but I have no idea where we’ll go. After all — and this fact dwarfs all the other horrors I’ve described — what’s happening to my family isn’t an isolated incidence of insanity, is it?