December 5, 2012
On November 24 we played at Saint-Camille in the Eastern Townships. You can find this little town on Google Earth by doing a search for “middle of nowhere”. We left Sherbrooke and followed the winding road, arriving about an hour later at the corner of Miquelon and Desrivières in downtown Saint-Camille.
The first snow of this tardy winter was falling, giving the scene a fairy tale look. Light was pouring from the windows of our destination, Le P’tit Bonheur (the little pleasure), reflecting off the snowflakes. Inside the atmosphere was cozy and the welcome most friendly. After the sound-check, we were served a selection of pizzas:vegetarian, onions and cheese, and bison (!). Seated around a large table, I made acquaintance with our hosts and discovered the history of this little community.
Saint-Camille was founded in 1848, its original colonists coming from all over Québec. It was amongst the first villages founded by French Canadians in the Eastern Townships, a region first populated by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Vermont is just south of here. Maybe the fact that the Frenchmen were forced to hold their own amongst the Anglos is the source of the tenacity that is the trademark of Saint-Camille.
For the first hundred years of its history the town grew, but by the 1990s, population growth had stagnated and then began to decline. Faced with a demographic implosion, the municipality launched a plan in 2001 to prevent Saint-Camille from disappearing. Families with young children were recruited and community projects were created. And it worked. The population stabilized and began to increase and the school was saved.
There are two community projects which were fundamental in saving the town: Le P’tit Bonheur and La Corvée. Le P’tit Bonheur, the place that we were playing, is housed in the old general merchandise store, converted into pizzeria, art gallery and for tonight, concert hall. Every Friday, practically the entire town shows up for lunch. At 4 AM, the baker next door starts preparing the pizza dough. By 7 AM, volunteers begin to arrive to help with the preparations. During the season, a dessert of strawberries from the agricultural coop, La Clé des champs, is served.
The building also has an art gallery featuring local artists on the second floor. It also houses the offices of the CIRM (Centre d’interprétation en milieu rurale) that offers courses in collaboration with the University of Sherbrooke and the Corporation de développement socio-économique de Saint-Camille.
Another success story is La Corvée, Coopérative de Solidarité en Soins et Services. This organization offers a multitude of services: a health clinic with full time nurse, osteophathe, massage therapist and acupuncture, and physical activities and relaxation therapy for retirees. It also publishes a community newsletter, and supervises a community garden and a community kitchen.
All of this activity has reinforced the bonds of this small community . This has prepared the citizens of Saint-Camille for their greatest challenge to date: combatting the mining companies who would like nothing better than to wipe the little town off the map. The hall in which we played and all of Saint-Camille sits atop gold deposits. The mining company Bowmore had hoped to dig an open pit mine here, but ran headlong into a well organized grass roots opposition. Faced with the collective refusal of the citizens of Saint-Camille to grant access to their property, Bowmore abandoned its project in 2011.
With this victory, Saint-Camille has become the symbol of the David in the fight with the Goliath mining companies. But the story is not over. There are important deposits of natural gas under the town as well, and oil companies are foaming at the mouth to start fracking.
“If we have been able to get this far, says Joël Nadeau, director of the citizens movement Mine de rien, “and if our strategy of refusing surface access for mining is adopted by citizens groups against fracking (gaz de schiste) or for those in Abitibi-Témiscamingue who are upset with open pit mining, we have a chance to reverse the balance of forces in favor of citizen’s action groups.”
This strategy is based on Canadian mining laws which oblige mining companies to arrive at an agreement (entente à l’amiable) with the surface owners. (Under Canadian law, subsurface mineral rights do not belong to the surface owners, but can be purchased from the government by mining companies). If surface access is refused, the mining companies must either abandon their project or file suit with the government of Québec to expropriate the surface owners for a fixed indemnity. Such an action seems hardly possible politically.
The group Mine de rien, which organized the resistance in Saint-Camille, gave its members access to the government’s internet site so that they could identify the detainers of the mineral rights under their property in view of logging a formal refusal of access.
According to Ugo Lapointe, the spokesperson of Pour le Québec, a citizens group against fracking, “by invoking their right to prior consent and by refusing Bowmore access to their property, the citizens of Saint-Camille have launched a test case without precedent that could snowball in Québec.”
All of this happened a year ago, but like rust, oil companies never sleep. Somewhere at the same time that we were eating our pizza, somebody was up late trying to figure out a way to push the citizens of Saint-Camille out of the way and gain access to the mineral wealth which was literally below our feet. Tonight, however, there was none of that.
The little hall was full to the brim. People of all ages were dancing and singing with us. This fund raiser collected over $125,000, enough to keep Le P’tit Bonheur in business for another year.
I was very moved by these people, simple and easy going like Michel Ouellet, maker of percussion instruments known around the world. And his wife Renée, director of Le P’tit Bonheur. And all of the volunteers old and young and in-between. We danced and sang and partied together. Everybody seemed happy. Far from the big city and the madding crowds, standing on gold, we had a good time. Simply.
Long live Saint-Camille.
October 24, 2012
Laisse le vent souffler / featuring the guitar wizardry of Sonny Landreth
Hurricanes have always been a part of life in Louisiana. I remember my first, Hurricane Audrey. I was 6 years old and huddled in the arms of my mother trying to find refuge from the storm. My dad was gone for three days. He had left to batten down the hatches at Camp Thistlewaite, the Boy Scout camp that he directed. The camp was flooded and he was caught by the storm and spent a terrifying on the roof of the mess tent time beating back the raccoons and the snakes until the Red Cross finally rescued him.
Global warming and climate change have increased the frequency and violence of the tropical storms which attach the lower parishes of the Bayou State. This song is a tribute to the resistance and resilience of the inhabitants of coastal Louisiana. Generations from now, I am convinced there will still be people living on the coast and singing « Laisse le vent souffler », Let the storm wind blow.
Dancing is a big part of the social life of Louisiana. This song pays homage to the dance hall and the romance that comes with it. Featuring the fiddle playing of Félix LeBlanc who is an Acadian from the Magdalen Islands (Îles de la Madeleine) it is the perfect blend of Cajun rhythm and Acadian fiddle.
« Le Fou » literally means « the crazy » but this song refers to the Northern Gannett, whose French name is « Fou de Bassan » (Crazy from Bassan - Bass Island off the coast of Scotland). The Northern Gannett was the first bird captured and cleaned during the Deepwater Horizon oil catastrophe of 2010. From April to September, over 5 million barrels of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. There are all kinds of craziness, but the most disturbing is the collective insanity of mankind in its relentless exploitation of natural resources and disregard of its consequences. Not only is the natural environment at risk, but the future of humanity itself.
Clif’s Zydeco / featuring Sonny Landreth on slide guitar.
The King of Zydeco is and will always be Clifton Chenier. Returning from Houston in the 1950s, Clif infused the style with the blues that he had learned from Lightening Hopkins. The roots of zydeco are planted deep in West Africa via South Louisiana, but it was Clifton Chenier who created the style as we know it today. The song pays tribute to the Zydeco greats : Boozoo Chavis, Rockin’ Dopcie, Beau Jocques, Joe Mouton, Amédé Ardoin, Bois-sec Ardoin and Queen Ida Guillory. It was a great thrill to have Sonny Landreth on the track. Sonny played in Clifton’s band back in the 1970s.
La chanson des migrateurs
I have always been inspired by migrating birds. I remember as a small child, laying in bed and hearing geese calling in the darkness as they flew overhead. Arriving in the fall they would return north in the spring, their v-formations leaving wonder in their wake. The song speaks of separation and reuniting. I have been practicing Japanese archery, Kyudo, for many years. Once attending a session given by master Kanjuru Shibata, I sang a song for him in thanks. I was surprised when he returned the favor. His song was a one for the migrating geese. He described the sadness of the departure and the separation from friends and loved ones. But this sadness is tempered by the joy of reuniting. I wrote this song for my grandson Émile on the eve of his departure, returning to his Paris home.
The last songs written for the album. This one is dedicated to my darling Claude.
La ballade de Jean Saint Malo
Jean Saint Malo was the leader of the most important slave revolt in colonial Louisiana during the Spanish period. Going from plantation to plantation in the environs of New Orleans, the insurgents freed slaves, adding to their number as they went. Saint Malo commanded the runaways from his camp on the shores of Lake Borgne from 1780 to 1784. Spanish troops were finally able to repress the rebellion and over one hundred “marrons” were captured. Jean Saint Malo was hung in the Place d’Armes (today Jackson Square) on June 19, 1784.
“Crevasse” in Louisiana refers to a breach of the levee and therefore a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Levee breaks have occurred frequently in Louisiana. The levee above New Orleans was breached in 1849 at Pierre Sauvé’s plantation which resulted in major flooding in the city. In 1871, the levee was breached again at Bonnet Carré, the floodwaters churning to Lake Ponchartrain and into the “back of town” lake front area of New Orleans. The levee was not repaired until 1883. During the flood of 1927, the levee was dynamited in Saint Bernard Parish at Cairnarvon to protect the city which resulted in major flooding of Saint Bernard and the destruction of the homes of thousands of people.
Bee de la manche
This is one of my favorite traditional zydeco tunes. A “manche” is a side road in Louisiana French.
C’est si bon
This is not the classic French tune of the same title, but my own. “It’s so good, sweet like the honey in the spring”.
Orignal ou Caribou (Moose or Caribou)
While touring in 2010, my grandson Émile informed me that he wanted to record an album and so we began writing songs. This one was written with Émile and my good friend and songwriter, Florent Vollant. We were in the Parc de la Gaspésie and were inspired by the photos included in the park brochure. On the cover was a photo of a moose and inside a photo of a troop of caribou. In my notebook I wrote “original ou caribou” thinking that we would write a song either about a moose or a caribou. As things turned out, the song is about an antlered beast with an identity crisis. The lyrics refer to being unable to decide whether one is from the north or the south, the morning or the night. Perhaps my most autobiographical song.
Les ailes des hirondelles (the wings of the swallow)
I think this is the most beautiful song that I have ever written. There is a traditional song of the same title which was the inspiration, but this one is my own. The theme of undying love, of separation and longing and the simplicity of the lyric make this song very dear to me.
September 5, 2012
I was shocked this morning to learn that last night, the victory celebration of the Parti Québécois was disrupted by gun shots. Near the back door of the Métrolpolis, (the artists entrance which I know well) a man wearing a blue bath robe and a ski mask opened fire, leaving one dead. Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti Québécois, was just beginning her victory speech when the shots rang out. She was hurried off by her body guards. Later she returned to the stage to calm her supporters.
In this crazy world, it is not surprising that the craziness would wind up in my neighborhood. What upsets me and disgusts me is the reaction of many in the community to this tragic event.
As the police were hauling the shooter away, he was screaming in French: “The English are coming, This is the vengeance of the English.” We are dealing obviously with a lunatic, but it seems that this hateful act has struck a similarly hateful chord.
In the minutes after the shooting, a FaceBook page was created demanding that Pauline Marois resign. The creator of the page, which rapidly got 300 likes, claims that the event at the Métropolis indicates that the presence of the Parti Québécois at the head of the province can only promote more violence.
Even more alarming to me are recent articles which appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto daily, in which we can read: “Separatists create a nightmare in Québec”, written by Margaret Wente and published on August 28.
In a editorial which appeared on August 31, we read: “Surely, reasonably minded Canadians can agree on this: a Parti Québécois victory on Tuesday would be very bad for both Quebec and the rest of Canada. The summertime campaign has laid bare the irrational, extreme, even perverse views of Pauline Marois and her separatist supporters. They don’t like Canada, they don’t like wealth, they don’t like innovation (i.e., change), they don’t even seem to like people who don’t look or talk like them. »
The point of view is prejudiced at best at hate-mongering at worst, and merits nothing but disdain. If there is indeed a “nightmare” it is being created by journalism such as this, fanning the flames of ethnic passion.
The news of the shooting has gone around the world and has stained the victory of the Parti Québécois. What is dangerous is the implication that this is somehow the fault of the Parti Québécois and that the separatists are nothing more that terrorists. What is most disturbing to me is the fear that this event might provoke.
I am a frequent visitor to Moncton, New Brunswick, where I observe a disquieting phenomenon. Meeting someone in an elevator or on the street, one (me) experiences a moment of hesitation. If the person is an unknown, one (me) will speak English or say “hello” with a neutral accent. And this out of concern not to disturb. For so long, the francophones of Acadie assumed a subordinate role in society and the vestiges of this self-effacement manifest themselves in a crowd where people are unknown. A similar phenomenon must not raise its ugly head in Québec. We should not be reluctant to speak any language. The choice of one’s language should not indicate one’s political allegiance. The choice to speak French must not make us antagonistic to Anglophones. The Anglophones of Montreal must not imagine that the French speakers of Québec are their enemies.
We cannot permit a madman to destabilize an entire community. We cannot let political passion drive us to hate. The line of combat in Québec society should not be between French and English, but between tolerance and prejudice.
Instead of fanning the flames of ethnic strife, the Globe and Mail would do better to congratulate Pauline Marois on her victory, democratically won. To congratulate her on becoming the first female prime minister of Québec. To wish her good luck and courage as she prepares to take the reins of the province. The beginning of her mandate has been anything but serene, but perhaps a woman will be better able to govern with a cooler head. That is what I wish for her.
August 29, 2012
On the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, here is a reprint of the report of September, 2005:
I was only six years old, huddled in my mother’s arms, trying to make myself smaller, trying to hide from the wind. A few yards from the window of our glass porch, the two hundred year old oak tree was twirling like a dervish. The sound was deafening, occasional shrill piercing shrieks as the wind surged in through the cracks, on the background of a huge constant roar. With each gust, the floor would jump, the wood creaking loudly. My cousin was with us. He was just a teenager, sent to protect my mother and me in the absence of my father. I would look at him as each gust drove through my heart. In his eyes was the same fear that was choking me. This went on for hours.
My father was working for the Boys Scouts and had left us, driving north to Bayou Courtableau to batten down the hatches at Camp Thistlewaite about 40 miles away. We would not see him for three days, not knowing if he was dead or alive. He was stranded on the roof of the mess hall for 24 hours, beating back the snakes with a canoe paddle
You remember your first hurricane like you remember the first time you make love. Her name was Audry. She came ashore south of Cameron, and took with her 100,000 buildings and 526 people. We were east of the eye, on the bad side. The day before the storm, people in the marsh had seen thousands of crawfish heading north. These were the days before Dopler radar when animals still had an advantage over man. Unfortunately, none of the inhabitants of the coastal marshes followed the crawfish out.
There was Carla in 1961. My mother and I took refuge across the street with a neighbor who had a brick house. I had just turned 11, still relegated to the women and children. Throughout the night, my mother and our neighbors prayed the rosary, their voices humming hypnotically, literally an island of calm in the storm. The eye passed right over us, and for a short time there was an eerie calm. I went out to look at the stars, my mother pleading for me to return. I did and in a just a few minutes the wind roared again coming without warning from the other direction at over 100 miles and hour.
There was Hilda in 1964. At that time my grandfather was suffering from throat cancer and we had gotten a generator to keep the pump for his tracheotomy running. I was 14 years old, and for the first time, it was I who was supposed to watch over the women and children. My father was Director of Civil Defense for Lafayette Parish and he would spend the night in the control center, directing operations. My uncles were all at the fire station, waiting like a swarm of bees to fall upon any danger. When the electricity failed, I had to climb underneath the house (an wood frame Cajun-victorian on pillars) and start the generator that would keep my grandfather from suffocating. At least the storm came during the day, which is always less frightening.
There was Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, and when they started naming hurricanes for men, there was Andrew and Juan and Ivan. The last storm to visit us was Lilly in 2002. My wife and I fled the country when the winds began to pound at 7AM, seeking shelter with my parents in the same house, built in 1896, where I had spent Hurricane Hilda. At noon, once the wind had died down some, unable to restrain ourselves, my father and I road out to the country. Our house (built in 1981) had survived. We had lost trees and telephone poles and the wind had pushed water somehow into the house (probably down the chimney), but the house was standing. For two weeks we were without power, spending our days in the sweltering heat, cleaning up, sleeping at night with a wet towel draped over our backs.
I have seen hurricanes, but I have never seen anything like Katrina.
In 1718, Jean Baptiste Lemoyne, sieur de Bienville, governor of the fledgling colony of Louisiana, sought out a new site upon which to establish the capitol of his colony. He was seeking a site that would give him easier access to the river. The site he chose was on high ground on the banks of the Mississippi, with communication upstream to the Illinois territory and from there to the Great Lakes, the river Français, the Ottawa river and finally Bienville’s hometown of Montréal. From this site, via Bayou St. John and Lac Ponchartrain, he was able to reach the Gulf and the French posts in the Caribbean and finally France itself. He named the new city in honor of the Duc d’Orléans, and la Nouvelle Orléans was born.
What served the interests of the fledgling colony, however, has become the bane of modern New Orleans. Punching a hole in the 17th Street Canal, Hurricane Katrina has created the nightmare which has haunted Louisiana from its first days:
La Crevasse. From its early days, Louisiana has had a love-hate relationship with water. The city’s wealth from colonial times to the present, is irrevocably linked to the river, but its existence is maintained only by severely controlling the river and the lake. The waters are held like slaves in bondage and like every slave, have always dreamed of revolt. Katrina has provoked that which the people of Louisiana fear the most: levee break and its attendant flood.
Today, September 1, the lake water is no longer rising in the city, which means that the city is now part of the lake. The dimension of the human suffering is impossible to imagine, even for the veteran of many hurricanes like myself. We have all seen the heartbreaking images of a city devastated. My house, like most of those in Cajun country, has become a refuge. We are sheltering friends and family from the city as well as stranded tourists, who at our door, disheveled and lost, like flotsam from the storm. People arrive and we welcome them. That’s all. We watch a lot of television and once in a while we hug and cry. My cousins from Pass Christian Mississippi ask themselves if their house was able to resist Katrina as it did Camille.
They are impatient to return and to begin cleaning up, and if necessary rebuilding. We will accompany them, giving them whatever help we can, just as they will do the next time the hurricane comes to Lafayette.
June 22, 2012
Je suis arrivé au Québec en 1974 pour découvrir une société en plein essor, une société qui s’affirmait. J’ai été propulsé dans un courant de résistance et de fierté. Peu après, je suis parti du Québec pour naviguer le labyrinthe des années 1980. Par je ne sais pas quelle influence, j’ai été ramené quinze ans plus tard.
J’ai été déçu par la défaite des référendums (surtout le premier). Mon identité de franco-perdant d’Amérique aurait pu prendre une autre allure du fait que quelque part sur ce continent, un peuple relégué au statu de deuxième ordre aurait dit « merde » au monde, et par son audace défait des siècles de soumission.
Là-dessus je n’ai rien à dire. Je n’ai jamais renoncé ma citoyenneté américaine. Pour devenir québécois, il aurait fallu devenir canadien, chose qui me ne parle pas trop. (Je me demande si j’aurais demandé la citoyenneté québécoise si telle chose existait. Je me dis que oui, probablement). Je n’ai pas le droit de vote au Québec. Donc, ce n’est pas ma place de dire aux Québécois ce qu’il faut faire. Cependant mon coeur et ma vie sont intimement liés à ce petit peuple foutu au bout du monde.
Depuis quelques mois, je regarde les évènements avec l’oeil de l’étranger. Même de ma fenêtre avec vue sur les Laurentides, je vois le Québec de l’extérieur. J’habite le no-man’s-land du francophone nord américain. (Qui sommes-nous qui n’ont pas de nom pour nous appeler? Nous ne sommes ni Québécois, ni Acadien, ni Cadien, ni Franco-Ontarien, ni Franco-Manitobain, ni Franco-Albertain, ni Franco-Columbien, ni Fransaskois, ni Franco-Nordois, ni Franco-Terreneuvien, ni Franco-Américain, mais tous à la fois).
Je regarde les manifestations de rue de Montréal de ma solitude planté sur les flancs de la montagne. Et je dis aux Québécoises et aux Québécois que je suis fier de vous connaitre. Vous m’avez permis de crier ma fierté haut et fort, et de défaire à ma façon la soumission de mes grands-parents unilingue francophone.
Je forme mes mains en porte-voix pour vous souhaiter la fête nationale que vous cherchez. N’abandonnez pas le rêve d’une société ouverte, d’un monde de justice et de compassion. Joyeuse Fête de la Saint-Jean. Aujourd’hui le monde est québécois.
June 8, 2012
According to the New York Times in an op-ed piece on May 23, Québec has gone rogue, trampling basic democratic rights in an effort to end student protests against the provincial government’s plan to raise tuition fees by 75 percent. The government of Jean Charest was accused of attacking freedom of speech, association and assembly.
While it is true that Bill 78 is very controversial, it is not the end of democracy in Québec as the New York Times infers. The law precludes the assembly of a group of more the 50 persons without registering with the police and presenting a precise map of the route of march. According to the article : Freedom of speech is also under attack because of an ambiguous — and Orwellian — article in Bill 78 that says, “Anyone who helps or induces a person to commit an offense under this Act is guilty of the same offense.”
The article ends with a flourish : Americans traveling to Quebec this summer should know they are entering a province that rides roughshod over its citizens’ fundamental freedoms.
On May 28, I was in the Hilton Hotel overlooking the parliament building. At 8 o’clock the demonstration began. About one hundred demonstrators stood in front of the police barricades banging on pots. After about a half hour, the demonstration headed down the street returning about an hour later. The ambiance was playful, the police keeping at a distance. No arrests were made.
Although I am troubled by what is happening in my « home away from home », my interpretation of events is diametrically opposed to that of the New York Times. The students demonstrations and all of the social unrest which they have provoked is actually a very positive development for the culture of Québec. To understand my point of view, we need to return to the mid-1970s, and my arrival in La Belle Province.
When I first arrived in Québec, the entire province was swept up in a separatist frenzy. With the election of René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois in 1976, it seemed possible that the dream of Québec independence would become reality. Although one-half of the population, and most notably the English speaking Montrealers, were hostile to and frightened by the specter of an independent Québec, the French speaking Québécois, while far from unanimous over the question of independence, were none the less, confident in their capacity to determine their future.
This was a very heady time for Québec. For the first time, the common people of Québec imagined themselves in the driver’s seat of their own destiny. Ever since the conquest of 1759, French Canadians had been ruled, over-ruled, and generally kept in a position of social and economic inferiority by the conquering Anglo. With the “Révolution Tranquille” of the 1960s, French-speaking Québécois assumed economic and political power which created the basis for the separatist movement. With the economic and political control came the notion that the best interests of the Franco-Québécois would be best served if Québec became independent from Canada. And here comes Zach right in the middle of it.
From 1976 to 1981, my wife and I lived in Montreal. These were the glory days of Radio Canada (TV) and the bust out period of the Québécois music scene. Groups like Harmonium and Beau Dommage were making records that compared favorably with American and British groups. I was right in the middle of it.
Curiously, we would leave Québec and return to Louisiana in 1980, the year of the referendum. I will never forget the heartbroken René Lévesque admitting defeat: “Si je vous comprends bien, vous avez dit à la prochaine fois” (If I understand you, you are saying next time”. Even more curiously, we would return to Québec in 1996, one year after the second referendum. Québec had changed radically in the 15 years that we had spent away.
The dream of political sovereignty, although still alive, was sliding toward irrelevance. During the 15 years that we had spent south of the border, Québec had gained in confidence. Bomardier, Céline Dion and le Cirque du Soleil proved beyond a doubt that the Québécois could be major players on the international scene. The 1980s and 1990s were defined in Québec by what I would call a more typically American attitude. The question of political independence, in spite of the ever-present Parti Québécois, was shifted to the back burner. The defining mentality of the period was one of “get aheadism”. Québécois were preoccupied with getting ahead. Questions of social conscience and political independence did not make to the radar.
Which brings us to 2012. It is surprising that a question of tuition fees has evolved into a social crisis. Which leads me to conclude that there in underlying question that has nothing to do with tuition fees or even students but is a reflection of an identity crisis that goes to the heart of Québécois society. The players in this crisis include not only the student community. From the very beginning of the demonstrations, the labor unions jumped into the fray. They obviously have their own agenda. In addition, thousands of ordinary citizens have joined the students in the demonstrations, indicating a broad level of support in the population at large. This is the most revealing aspect of this crisis: the broad level of support for the students in the general population. And this is the point.
That fundamental identity of Québec was defined in the 1970s by the question of political independence (whether for or against). That of 1980s and 1990s, while not completely devoid of the sovereignty issue, was based on the premise that the Québécois were just like everybody in North America, just as capable and with similar values (witness the ADQ, a right wing party which exploded on the scene in 1994 and disappeared in 2012).
What this current crisis tells me is that the enfeeblement of the separatist cause has left a malaise in the soul of Québec that was just waiting for the opportunity to manifest itself. Regardless of the political question, the Québécois consider their culture and society unique. Québécois society is unique in North America. It is distinguished not only by its language but also by a center-left political ideology. In that sense Québec resembles more a European country that the United States or even the rest of Canada.
The student question was the spark that lit the fire of a full blown identity crisis for Québec society. “Who are we?” is what this seems to really be about. The nature of Québécois society is the fundamental question. “Are we a liberal progressive society, distinct in North America, which prizes liberal values and human rights, or are we a society of individuals with no over-riding responsibility for the common good?”
I took the train back to Montreal. In the taxi from the train station, it was clear that the driver had his own point of view. He spoke English with a heavy accent: “ Let the students get a job” he ranted. “I work hard for my money, and nobody need to tell me what to do. I can’t work downtown in the evening with all this demonstration stuff. I tell you, it’s terrible for business. And what is the government asking: 50 cents a day. That’s it. Just $50 cents a day. … so tell is that too much to ask. Now these students, they want everything for free. So you tell me. No, I’ll tell you. Let ‘ em get a job.” Indeed. To be continued.
May 9, 2012
This report continues to deal with GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the chemical giant Monsanto. The information included is taken from “Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto) by Marie-Monique Robin (Editions Alain Stanké, 2008). This report will deal with the history of PCBs and the pollution of Anniston, Alabama.
According to the best estimates, 1.5 millions tons of PCBs were produced between 1929 and 1989, of which an important percentage ended up in the environment. PCBs or polychlorobiphenyls, are chemical derivatives. They were the product of the industrial advancements of the end of the 19th century. PCBs were discovered during the early stages of the refining of crude oil for the production of gasoline. During the early 20th century, chemists were able to develop benzene, a hydrocarbon utilized as a solvent in the chemical synthesis of medicines, plastics and colorants. Benzene was mixed with chlorine to obtain a new product which had remarkable properties of thermal stability and resistance to fire. For over 50 years, PCBs colonized the planet. They were used as liquid refrigerants in electric transformers and heavy industrial hydraulic systems as well as lubricants in plastics, paints, ink and paper.
According to David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, New York, we all (humans) have PCBs in our bodies. PCBs belong to a category of particularly dangerous chemicals, POPs or Persistent Organic Pollutants. These chemicals are dangerous because they resist degradation and accumulate in living tissue all along the food chain. According to Professor Carpenter, PCBs have contaminated the entire planet from the North to the South Poles. The files of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) reveal many alarming cases including that of children born of mothers who consumed fish from Lake Michigan contaminated with PCBs and who suffered from abnormally small body mass at birth and reduced cognitive development. The Inuit people of Hudson Bay are particularly at risk because of their high consumption of animal protein. PCB contamination is at its maximum at the top of the food chain and particularly high in marine mammals such as seals, polar bears and whales. Prolonged exposure to PCBs can cause cancer, notably of the liver, pancreas, intestine, breast, lungs and brain. PCBs can cause cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, deficiency of the immune system, thyroid dysfunction, dysfunction of sex hormones, problems of reproduction and neurological problems.
Thanks to its patent, the Monsanto Company of St. Louis, Missouri controlled the market of PCBs in the USA until their ultimate ban in 1977. The company was aware of the potential health risks of PCBs as early as 1937. In 1936, three employees of Holowax, a client of Monsanto, died suddenly following exposure to PCB vapor. Additional employees of Holowax developed “chloracne” a debilitating skin condition associated with PCBs. A report filed with Monsanto on October 11, 1937 states: laboratory tests on animals show that prolonged exposure to the vapor of Aroclor (the commercial name of Monsanto manufactured PCB) cause toxic effects on the entire organism.
According to Professor Carpenter, for decades, in the USA and around the world, political leaders collaborated in an effort, orchestrated by Monsanto, to keep information regarding the dangers of PCBs out of the public eye. In the face of growing concern regarding the safely of polychlorobiphenyls, on February 16, 1970, N.Y. Johnson of Monsanto wrote an internal memo addressed to sales representatives of the company directing their response to potential questions posed by clients reacting to the increasing public concern about the dangers of PCBs: “Attached please find a list of questions which can be asked by our clients and appropriate responses. You can reply orally, but under no conditions should you furnish a written response. We cannot afford to lose a dollar of business”.
In spite of Monsanto’s efforts to continue the manufacture of PCBs, the products were banned definitively in the USA on October 31, 1977 (Halloween). But in Great Britain, where the multinational company owned a subsidiary at Newport in Wales, and in France where the company Prodelec continued to manufacture PCBs until 1987, as well as in Germany (Bayer) and in Spain, the production of PCBs continued long after their suppression in the USA. On 29 September, 1976, the head office of Monsanto sent a memorandum to Monsanto Europe with a model of questions and answers in order to prepare its European branch in the case of a possible public outcry. The document states: “If a question is posed regarding the carcinogenic properties of PCBs use the following reply: Preliminary studies that we have conducted on the workers associated with the fabrication of PCBs as well as long term studies on laboratory animals do not conclude that PCBs are carcinogenic.”
On January 14, 2002, John Hunter, CEO of Solutia, the company which had purchased the chemical division of Monsanto in 1997, declared: “There is no consistent and convincing proof that PCBs are associated with any serious long term health risks.” This statement was issued in response to a Washington Post article of January 2, 2002 entitled: “Monsanto has hidden pollution for decades” . The article dealt with the contamination of Anniston, Alabama. A lawsuit had been filed in Calhoun County Alabama by members of the community of Anniston who alleged that the considerable health problems of the town, high rates of cancer and severe neurological problems, were the result of pollution by the Monsanto plant producing PCBs. According to a declassified report by the EPA, 308,000 tons of PCBs were produced at the Monsanto plant in Anniston from 1929 to 1971. Of the total, 27 tons had been emitted into the atmosphere, notably during the transfer of molten PCBs to various reservoirs. 81 tons had been dumped into Snow Creek and 32,000 tons of contaminated waste had been deposited in an open pit in the heart of the black community. The results were persistent and tragic health problems amongst the black residents of Anniston.
On January 22, 2002 after 5 hours of deliberation, the jury rendered its verdict in Abernathy vs. Monsanto. It declared Monsanto and Solutia guilty of having polluted Anniston and “the blood of its population” with PCBs. The verdict accused the plaintiffs of negligence, fraud, and attacks on persons and property. It went on to criticize Monsanto for activity that “violated in the extreme the limits of decency and that can be considered atrocious and absolutely intolerable in a civilized society.”
One month after the verdict was rendered, the EPA announced an agreement with Solutia to decontaminate the site. This decision, very favorable to the polluters, rendered the jury verdict irrelevant. The number two at the EPA during this period was Linda Fisher, ex-employee of Monsanto. At the same time, another lawsuit was filed in Birmingham Alabama, Tolbert vs. Monsanto. This case was a class action on behalf of the alleged victims of the pollution at Anniston and was being tried by the celebrated black attorney, Johnnie Cochran. Fearing the repercussions of what promised to be a highly publicized trial, Monsanto and Solutia proposed an out of court settlement of 700 million dollars, the highest indemnity is U.S. judicial history. 600 million was to be disbursed to the victims, and 100 million was to be spent decontaminating the site and for the creation of a specialized clinic.
More than 35 years earlier on November 2, 1966, a report arrived at the head office of Monsanto. The report detailed the outcome of an experiment conducted at the company’s request by Danzel Ferguson, a biologist at the University of Mississippi. Ferguson had plunged 25 fish into water from Snow Creek.. All of the fish lost equilibrium and all were dead within 3 and one half minutes, spitting blood. “The water is so polluted that even diluted 300 times, it will kill fish “, the report concluded.
According to Ken Cook, director of the Environmental Working Group, a private organization specialized in environmental protection, the worst part of the story is that Monsanto knew about the risks at Anniston but did nothing. An internal document of August 1970 marked “Confidential, destroy after reading”, reveals that Monsanto was dumping 16 pounds of PCBs per day into Snow Creek (compared to 269 pounds per day in 1969). The company never warned the inhabitants that the water, the soil and the air of the western part of town were all highly contaminated.
Monsanto is currently the world’s largest dealer in genetically modified seed and the producer of the world’s most popular herbicide, Round-up, as well as the controversial bovine growth hormone.
April 4, 2012
In the March 29 issue of the journal Science, two teams of researchers published studies suggesting that low levels of a common pesticide can have significant effects on bee colonies. One experiment, conducted by French researchers, indicates that the chemicals fog honeybee brains, making it harder for them to find their way home. The other study, by scientists in Britain, suggests that they keep bumblebees from supplying their hives with enough food to produce new queens.
The authors of both studies contend that their results raise serious questions about the use of the pesticides, known as neonicotinoids. This seems to be an appropriate introduction to this article which is a reprint of that of July, 2008. I have often written about agriculture and biotechnology, specifically genetically modified organisms (GMO) (report of June3, 2003, November 5, 2003 / February 4, 2004 / March 3, 2004 / June 2, 2004 / January 5, 2005 / August 3, 2005 / May 3, 2006) . This report deals with the conflict between traditional farming methods and the farmers who utilize them versus the multinational chemical giants who are developing products which could ultimately mean the demise of traditional agriculture and which pose considerable risks to human health.
Of all of the reports which I have written over the last few years, I consider this one to be unquestionably the most important because it deals with fundamental questions regarding agriculture and the growing of crops upon which the survival of the human race depends.
If this seems a bit melo-dramatic, please read on. I was recently myself flabbergasted by the documentary by Marie-Monique Robin: Le Monde selon Monsanto (The world according to Monsanto). This and the following reports are really nothing but a synopsis of her book, published by Alain Stanké (Longeueil, 2008). It is unlikely that the book will be translated into English and made available to the American public. The effects of its publication would have such important consequences for both the agro-chemical companies and for the U.S. government itself, that it seems improbable that the American public will have access to this information..
I have been following the development of GMOs in agriculture for many years. I have been myself a direct victim of what many have come to consider dangerous agricultural practices. My house was inundated by herbicide in a spill-over incident by a crop-duster. I filed a complaint and received a compensation of $28, the equivalent of the fair market price of the vegetables I had planted in my garden. The question of the effect of the spillover on my health and that of my family was not an issue. Some time later, my entire forest of several hundred trees turned bone white in the middle of the spring. Upon contacting my local county agent, he euphemistically referred to the incident as a “Command problem.” Apparently some of the herbicide Command, being used in a neighboring field had been transported by the wind onto my property. Command disrupts the synthesis of both chlorophyll and carotenes which is why all of the trees had turned white.
I was subsequently visited by a representative of the chemical company who did his very best to charm me into not filing a complaint, going so far as to parade the farmers responsible for the incident. Three generations of them stood in the middle of my yard with their heads bowed in sorrow while the company rep went through his well-rehearsed routine. According to him I could put the herbicide on my corn flakes for breakfast with no ill effect. He gave me the willies. I knew he was lying through his teeth while grinning from ear to ear. I felt like I was talking to the devil. I live in the middle of an agricultural zone into which massive amounts of herbicides are introduced in the spring and fall. The long term effects on the my health and that of my family are largely unknown and the practice itself is encouraged by the collaboration, i.e. collusion between the United States government via the FDA and multinational chemical companies.
Through Ms. Robin’s film I discovered a great deal of information that I had suspected but did not fully understood. The danger posed to human health by agricultural practices that are becoming largely ubiquitous is unknown, but by the stealthy utilization of the political process, powerful multinational chemical companies are operating without real control, and posing significant threats to human health and to family based agriculture around the globe in the process.
The following report and those of the months to follow will attempt to put some perspective on a complex issue.
The fundamental problem goes beyond the question of greed and the abuse of power. It is a question that speaks to the nature of contemporary western capitalism. As we have witnessed, the communist system of the Eastern block imploded in the 1980s, falling under the weight of its own bureaucracy. Communism proved unable to inspire innovation because it was ultimately unable to create incentive. The problem of capitalism is of a completely different stripe. By favoring the acquisition of wealth above all, the system is in danger of destroying itself from within. If the object of social action in a capitalist society is the creation of wealth, it is in the interest of society to remove the obstacles which impede that goal. The result is an unfettered process in which just about anything goes, including the marketing of products whose long term effects on human health are largely unknown and which may eventually prove disastrous.
At the heart of the issue are two questions: 1. the possibility of owning a patent for a living organism, and thus controlling its commerce, and 2. the nature of genetically modified organisms themselves. The way in which western society has come to regard these questions has influenced our vision of agriculture, of society and even of life itself. The way in which we perceive these questions has and will continue to have far reaching consequences for the manner in which humanity feeds itself, or does not feed itself as the case may be.
The first premise is that a patent can be obtained for living organisms, such as seeds and plants and animal clones. Under this perception of commerce, any and everything that is “invented” can be owned and should thus generate royalties for the owner of the patent in the same way that the inventor of a gadget or the writer of a song has the right to obtain royalties for the use of his “creation”. In the case of biotechnology, nothing is in fact “created” the genes that are bandied about are all naturally occurring substances. What is being “created” is the manner in which the particular genes of a particular plant are introduced into another plant to form a new organic form with “desirable” properties. The reasoning is that by “inventing” new plant forms, bio-tech companies are “creating” life forms for which they have the right to own the patent and thus control any subsequent use. The same holds true for animals as well. We haven’t gotten to human beings yet, but the judicial reasoning should logically apply to homo-sapiens as well.
By splicing together DNA from disparate organisms, the “creator” can obtain a patent and restrict its application under the condition of the payment of a royalty. In actual fact, this means that farmers who buy seed from biotech companies are obliged to enter into a contractual agreement compensating the patent owner for the rights to his “property”. This logic was confirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court in its ruling against Percy Schmeiser. The court held that Mr. Schmeiser infringed upon the patent held by Monsanto on its GMO canola by the very fact that some of its seed appeared in Mr. Schmeiser’s field. Never mind that the occurrence was random and unwanted, the seed brought in by wind or spread by a bird. According to the Canadian Supreme Court, the fact that some Monsanto seed somehow wound up in Mr. Schmeiser’s field made him liable to the company for infringement of patent. Under the terms of the contract that farmers are obliged to enter into with Monsanto, they cannot keep their seed for the next harvest as farmers have done since the beginning of time, but are obliged to renew their seed stock each and every year by the purchase of new seed from the company.
The second question deals with the nature of genetically modified organisms themselves. In spite of the apparent logic that genetically modified organisms are in and of themselves new products, the U.S Food and Drug Administration created a giant loophole which effectively exempts all GMOs from testing. The FDA is very rigorous in its requirement that any new product or any new additive to an existing product destined to be consumed by either humans or animals be tested for its possible harmful effects. In the case of GMOs, however, the FDA applied a concept of “substantial equality”. In other words if you are taking a gene from plant A and attaching it to the DNA of plant B, since neither plant A, nor plant B are harmful in an of themselves, then the new plant A+B is not harmful either. Therefore, there is no reason to test the new organism for possible harmful effects.
The fact of the matter is, as several scientists have shown, that the new organism created from the splicing of the DNA from two individual plants, neither of which is harmful, may create an organism which is in fact harmful. Thus the potential danger comes not from the two original plants themselves, but from the new bioactivity derived from the process itself. It just so happened that many of the important players at the FDA during the period during which this major ruling was formulated (the Clinton administration) were former employees of biotech companies, most notably Monsanto.
So just what is Monsanto anyway?
Monsanto was founded in 1901 by John Francis Queen, a self-taught chemist. The small company, named for Mr. Queen’s wife Olga Mendez Monsanto, produced saccharine. Its major client was another newly founded U.S. company, Coco-Cola. In 1918, Monsanto made its first acquisition, an Illinois company producing sulfuric acid. The Monsanto Chemical Company went public in 1929, one month before the stock market crash. In the 1940s, Monsanto became one of the world’s largest producers of rubber, plastic, synthetic fiber, phosphate and polycholorbiphenyl or PCB. For more than 50 years, PCBs will insure the fortune of the company. PCBs are used as a refrigerant for electric transformers, and hydraulic equipment, and as lubricant in a variety of applications such as plastics, paint, ink and paper. On October 31, 1977, the production of PCB was outlawed in the U.S. because of the highly toxic nature of the product.
In 1944, Monsanto begins the production of DDT. By that time, the relationship between the company and the Pentagon had become quite close. In 1942, Charles Thomas, the research director of the company is approached by General Leslie R. Groves U.S. Army, to participate in the Manhattan Project which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. The chemists of Monsanto, under the direction of Mr. Thomas were enlisted to isolate and refine plutonium and polonium for the detonation device. At the end of the war, Mr. Thomas was promoted vice-president of the company. He continued to work for the U.S. government as well, attempting to find civilian applications for nuclear power. Mr. Thomas was the president of Monsanto from 1951 to 1960. He was at the helm of the company when it obtained its most important government contract: the production of dioxin based agent-orange utilized in the Viet Nam war.
In the 1940s, several researchers around the world were able to isolate the growth hormone of plants and were able to reproduce the molecule synthetically. The application of this molecule in large doses kills the plant. Out of this research comes the powerful herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Because the research had been accomplished in several laboratories at once, there is no clear patent holder which allows a free-for-all amongst chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1948, Monsanto opens its first 2,4,5-T plant in Nitro, West Virginia, site of an industrial accident on March 8, 1949. Dioxin based herbicides are enormously popular, because they are “selective”. Properly used they will destroy weeds (dicotes) while leaving corn or wheat (monocotes) in tact.
However, dioxin is proven to be highly cancerous, a charge denied by Monsanto. Under increasing pressure, the company will eventually devote its energy to a new product, one which has become the companies biggest seller: the herbicide Round-up.
In the late 1960s, Monsanto chemists developed glyphosate, an amino acid based herbicide. This herbicide is not “selective” as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T, but “total”, absorbed by the plant via its leaves and transported to the roots and the rhizomes. Glyphosate effects an enzyme essential to the creation of chlorophyll provoking the necrosis of plant tissue. On the market since 1974, Round-up is a “huge success”. According to its original publicity, Round-up is “100% biodegradable” and “respects the environment”. In 1996, the New York state consumer protection agency prohibits Monsanto from using the terms “biodegradable, good for the environment” in its publicity. In 1998, the company is forced to pay a fine of $75,000 for misleading publicity. On January 26, 2007, the company is fined 15,000 Euros by the tribunal correctionnelle de Lyon France for misleading publicity, a symbolic gesture given the sums involved.
Since Round-up is a “total” herbicide, the challenge for the company was to develop plant stock resistant to the poison. Monsanto is not only the producer of the world’s most popular herbicide, but is also the world’s largest developer of genetically modified organism, notably soy beans, canola and corn. The primary purpose of the genetic modification is nothing other than to make the plants resistant to the herbicide.
In 2007, transgenic agriculture (GMOs) covered more than 1,000,000 hectares, approximately 3,000,000 acres. Half of them in the U.S. (54.6 million hectares) followed by Argentina (18 million) Brazil (11.5 million), Canada (6.1 million), India (3.8 million), China (3.5 million), Paraguay (2 million) and South Africa (1.4 million). 70% of the total is “Round-up Ready”, i.e. resistant to the herbicide, and 30% is “BT”, i.e. plants producing an insecticide. Monsanto controls 90% of the associated patents.
As you can read in Monsanto’s 2005 “Pledge”: the farmers who use genetically modified seed stock utilize considerably less pesticide and realize considerably greater economic gain compared to conventional agriculture. Monsanto helps small farmers throughout the world to be more productive and self sufficient” As you will discover in the following reports, this is hardly the case. For many, this statement is nothing but a smoke screen masking a huge commercial project to insure Monsanto’s hegemony over food stock worldwide. To many, the use of genetically modified organisms is a threat to the food stock of the world and to the ecological balance of the planet.
I am not a partisan of the conspiracy theory. I do not believe that some evil characters are holed up somewhere plotting to control the food supply of the world. The goal of insuring a secure supply of food for everyone is something that no right thinking person can contest. But the question remains what are the veritable threats posed by genetic engineering of food crops and the attendant chemical based agricultural processes to which they are associated. I am not against scientific research for the improvement of the world’s food supply. It seems to me, however, that the scientific evidence is not conclusive and given the history of companies like Monsanto, it is hard to take the agro-chemical companies at their word. Remember, in this capitalist system, the only responsibility multi-national companies have is to their shareholders. Wealthy and powerful, multinational companies have used the political system to their advantage. Making a buck. It has proven to be in the interests of the companies to continue marketing products harmful to human health even in the face of overwhelming evidence, since the legal consequences of any eventual lawsuit are not cost prohibitive. It makes business sense to keep producing harmful products in spite of the eventual punitive damages incurred since those damages will come in the future and will be relatively inexpensive. Remember cigarettes.
My grandfather died of throat cancer. I watched him suffer horribly, bed ridden for years, breathing through a tracheotomy. He was a heavy smoker. Remember the advertisement for Chestefield cigarettes showing a good looking man in a doctor’s white tunic holding a lighted cigarette. “The brand preferred by doctors” said the ad.
I don’t want to see my grandson die from cancer because of the food that he consumed or the environment that he lives in.
March 1, 2012
For those of you who are familiar with this blog, it will come as no surprise that this article deals with the question of the natural environment generally and more specifically with the environmental damages caused by the agro-chemical giant Monsanto. On February 13, in the French court at Lyon Monsanto lost its lawsuit against Paul François, a 47 year old French cereal farmer.
On April 27, 2004, Mr. François inhaled fumes of the herbicide Lasso, manufactured by Monsanto. Since that time, he has suffered chronic health problems including dizziness, stuttering and a host of other complications. After several months, chlorbenzene was discovered in his hair and urine, caused by his exposure to Lasso. He decided to sue Monsanto on the basis of the company’s promulgation of misleading information. The Lasso label does not even mention chlorbenzene. Monsieur François charged that Monsanto distributed (distributes) a product that it knows to be dangerous to human health without proper accompanying information.
In the judicial history of the multi-national, this guilty verdict is a mere distraction. Monsanto has been defending its arsenal of highly dangerous products during its entire corporate history. The list is a “what’s what” of toxic and dangerous chemical products including PCBs, Agent Orange, dioxin, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), bovine growth hormones, aspartame (nutrisweet), and the herbicides Roundup and Lasso. These products have made the fortune of Monsanto. All have been associated with recurrent health and environmental disasters. Up until now, in spite of its history of marketing harmful substances, nothing has yet slowed the agro-chemical juggernaut.
None the less, the verdict of the French court on February 13 is significant since the judges ruled that the multi-national must “completely” indemnify the plaintiff, Paul François. He can no longer work and suffers from chronic fatigue and severe headaches. His doctors consider that his central nervous system was affected. The herbicide Lasso is banned in Canada since 1985, in Belgium and the United Kingdom since 1992 and in France since 2007.
The month of February was not so good for Monsanto in France. On February 20, the French government petitioned the European Commission to ban the planting of Monsanto genetically modified corn MON810 in the entire European territory. France had already banned the modified corn on its own territory in 2008, but the European Court in Luxemburg overturned this order. Now France seeks to ban the GMO corn throughout the EU. This demand is based on a new study by the AESA (Agence Européenne de sécurité alimentaire) published December 8, 2011, which found that MON801 poses “significant risks to the environment”.
And for the cherry on the sundae: the “volunteer reapers” (faucheurs volontaires) along with my hero, goat farmer and Euro Deputy José Bové, were found guilty on February 16 in the appeals court of Poitiers, of the deliberate “reaping” (fauchage) of two lots of Monsanto GMO corn, BUT The accused have decided unanimously to continue their appeal.
The eight of them ripped up two fields planted in MON810/NK603 on August 15, 2008 at Civaux and Valdivienne. The court ruled that the 8 “reapers”, already found guilty of similar acts, must pay Monsanto 135,700 Euros and 38,000 to the farmer who fields were destroyed. This case is the last in a series of similar incidents which began in 1997.
Since Monsanto is back in the news, at least in France, it seems appropriate to re-publish several articles which I wrote dealing with the multinational and its panoply of agro-chemicals, back in 2008. The first report will deal with GMOs and will re-see the light of day next month. I am not a partisan of a conspiracy theory, but it seems to me that Monsanto is the worst (best) example of capitalism gone wrong. The priority of the company is to make a profit for its investors…..period, with no concern for the natural environment or people’s health. What is so disturbing is the extent to which the American government has not only turned a blind eye, but is actually aiding an abetting a chemical company which markets products that are harmful (and/or worse) to the health of its own citizens. In this day and age when the primary driving force of this country is the almighty dollar, it is not surprising that Monsanto acts with apparent indifference to health and environmental questions. Its huge profits have been able to absorb even the most unfavorable litigation. With no surveillance and/or protection coming from the U.S. government, it’s citizens are left to fend for themselves (ourselves). As you will find out, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is not the watchdog it pretends to be, but rather the ally of the agro-chemical industry. Hopefully these next few reports will help you make more enlightened choices for yourselves and your families. Remember: you are what you eat.
February 1, 2012
I first heard of Pecan Island as a young boy. The first person from Pecan Island that I ever met was Roy Harrington. That was in 1974. Roy is a very talented musician and singer and we worked together for many years (still do).
Roy told me the story of his family’s ordeal during Hurricane Audrey (1957). Without the warning system and compulsory evacuation which are the rule on coastal Louisiana these days, the inhabitants of the Southwest coast were left to their own devises during this fierce storm. Audrey roared on shore in the afternoon of June 27, 1957. The storm surge at Pecan Island was over 10 feet tall and swept the house in which Roy and his family were gathered, over a hundred yards into the marsh. The rest of the day was spent clutching to the shelter in hopes of staying out of the angry water. The night was spent trying to keep the small mammals, alligators and snakes from clambering onto the roof where the family held on for dear life. Two days later the Red Cross showed up. At that same time, my father was stranded on the roof of the mess hall at Camp Thistlewaite, the Boy Scout camp that he had gone to batten down.
After Hurricane Rita, I was able to get past the National Guard check point thanks to Achille Michaud’s Radio Canada press pass. There was heavy machinery in the road, pulling trees to the side. The houses were ripped apart or missing altogether. We continued on all the way to Cameron passing through the marsh. All along the road were dead animals, nutrea and alligators mostly with an occasional raccoon. The few live animals that we saw were in pitiful shape. Both the reptiles and the mammals had been pulverized by the storm, but the worst was the intrusion of salt water which was burning them still.
My wife Claude and I returned to Pecan Island this January, guests of David and Heidi Alpha. We hoped to get out in the marsh to do some birding, but the wind kept us on shore. None the less, a good time was had by all.
I was surpised and dismayed by what I saw. There has been significant change in the community since Hurricane Rita. The local high school has been closed and converted to a hunting lodge. There are no more families at Pecan Island, anyone with school aged childred forced to relocate. Pecan Island is a busy place none the less. At the end of Fresh Water Bayou road is a marine port. The oil business is booming and Pecan Island is a staging area for oil exploration. Many of the oak groves which are such a distinctive part of the landscape, are dying, victims of the salt water intrusion which followed in Rita’s wake.
In spite of all of these changes, the marsh is still beautiful, a wide expanse roseau grass and water. The wildlife is abundant, huge flocks of ducks and geese as well as shorebirds and waders, the most spectacular of which are the roseate spoonbills.
Here is a short history of Pecan Island thanks to Jim Bradshaw, which appeared in the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, June 24, 1997, almost 40 years to the day after Hurricane Audrey struck. Rita came onshore in September, 2005. Although of lesser magnitude than Audrey, her impact on this small coastal community will ultimately be much more significant.
Pecan Island is a cheniere (oak ridge) made up of three sandy ridges sitting about 6 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, covered with pecan and live oak trees. For many years it was an isolated place, difficult to get to, and, because of that, an attractive place for people who--for whatever reason--wanted to be left alone.
The old stories make it a hiding place for pirates, and say that there is untold wealth buried there. If that is true, it is buried deep, because treasure hunters have scoured the island and found little for their work.
Another tale says it was once strewn with human bones because (take your choice) pirates brought their prisoners here to murder them, or because man-eating Attakapas Indians used it as a feasting place. According to one imaginative description "Attakapas Indians ...brought their prisoners here where they butchered them, cooked them up with clams and other products of the sea, and feasted to their hearts', or rather their stomachs' content." There is no evidence that either pirates or Indians left piles of human bones behind; there is more evidence that the bones belonged to animals that trod on four legs.
Jacob Cole was the first settler on Pecan Island. He wandered in from Texas about 1840, looking for grazing land for his cattle. He stopped first at Grand Cheniere (Cameron Parish), at that time the first coastal settlement east of the Sabine River, and hired two guides to take him to the ridges further east. It was tough going. There were no trails through the marsh. Cane and sawgrass were as high as a man on horseback. The men hacked their way through, under constant attack by swarms of mosquitoes, sometimes finding alligators 12 to 14 feet long, sometimes as many as 25 of them in one hole. The men got as far as the ridge known as Long Island before the guides said,'No more." Cole went back to Texas.
He and two slaves returned two weeks later, worked their way again to Long Island, then to another ridge, where they found huge oak, fruit and pecan trees, and good grazing land. They spent the next four years clearing reeds, cutting grass, and building a palmetto-thatched logcabin. Then Cole returned to Texas with a handful of pecans to prove that he had found the land that he was looking for. He named the ridge Pecan Island.
He returned to Louisiana with his cattle and more of his belongings. Then, the next spring, he drove the cattle across the marsh to market.
Cole also claimed that when he first reached Pecan Island he found thecheniere's surface covered with bleached, human bones.
Historian William Henry Perrin picked up the story of the bones, and reported it in 1891:
Located as (Pecan Island) is, it is difficult of approach by the stranger, as well as dangerous, and hard to find. ...The island is said to be like unto the valley of dry bones, a veritable Golgotha, and that great quantities of human bones are to be found here. ...It is understood that the land embraced in Pecan Island is soon to be put upon the market, and when it is, then perhaps some of the traditions may be unraveled. Who will live upon this island, however, for the ghosts of the murdered ones doubtless haunt the island at least in the minds of the superstitious? If the island is filled with the ghosts of slaughtered men, who will want to make it his home?
Indian mounds can still be found on the island.
Until the 1950's, the only way to get to Pecan Island was by boat from Abbeville, down the Vermillion River, through the Intracoastal Canal, across White Lake, then through narrow canals to a private landing north of the cheniere. A visitor could board the mail boat which made deliveries three times a week and took eight hours or could hire a "speed boat" which took three hours.
A road was built in 1953 from Little Prairie through Pecan Island, connecting with the Grande Cheniere-Cameron highway. That brought electric power with it and telephone service not too long after.
Throughout its history, Pecan Island has remained a wild place, a refuge for wild animals and even wilder people. Today, it retains its rowdy and untamable nature. None the less, Hurricane Rita in 2005 marked a watershed for the community. With the closing of the high school and the departure of families with school-age childern, Pecan Island changed in a fundamental way. Only the marsh remains immutable and I hope that it will stay as rough and rugged forever.