Chemicals can't kill everything

Dan Rodricks

May 31, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

It is probably safe to assume that parties unknown -- perhaps renegade disciples of the chemical industry -- were attempting to make a statement by killing the azaleas at Sarah Standiford's house in Homeland on the night of May 18.

The vandals who attacked the bushes and lawn around the Standiford house -- four Teenage Mutant Eco-Terrorists equipped with potent herbicides -- must have been trying to intimidate Sarah Standiford, to keep her from spreading her enviro-consciousness in a neighborhood where many homes are downright baronial and the lawns around them downright manorial.

It's just theory, but a sound one, I think.

Someone was trying to tell Sarah Standiford to bug off with her dogged campaign to get her neighbors to stop hosing down their lawns with pesticides.

To keep their lawns green, many Homeland residents have hired those chem-spreader companies. You know the ones; they have drenched the nation in the determination to make America one large New Jersey. There are a couple of big-name companies equipped with fleets of tank-trucks carrying pesticides formulated to kill annoying bugs and broad-leaf weeds.

The market for these companies is huge. Americans spent about $6.4 billion on lawn-care products last year. About 40 percent of the nation's private lawns are treated with pesticides. We pour tons and tons of poisons into the Earth each year to answer the obsession for perfect, green lawns.

Sarah Standiford was 13 when she spotted those little yellow signs the chem-spreader agents left behind, the ones that said: "Keep Off -- Pesticide Application."

Ms. Standiford's reaction: "Birds Can't Read."

She booked up on pesticides and experienced what I have called the Silent Spring Awakening ever since I experienced one myself. It goes something like this: What are we doing here? Why are we pouring tons of poisons into the soil for the aesthetic delight of front lawns that look like the greens at Five Farms? Does anyone know what these companies are pouring on our lawns? Do the pesticides contain carcinogens? Can they harm small animals? Is the obsession for this contrived greenery worth the risk of further harm to an already chemical-drenched planet?

Good questions for anyone -- especially someone of Ms. Standiford's generation -- to be asking.

So she mounted a quiet campaign to discourage pesticide use in Homeland.

She circulated a newsletter -- printed on recycled paper, of course -- that detailed the potential hazards of the chemicals used by the big chem-spreader companies. If Ms. Standiford managed to convert a Homeland homeowner, she planted a handmade sign on the chemically liberated lawn. It was blue, bearing the likeness of a rabbit, and the words: "This Lawn Is Pesticide-Free, Safe for Animals and Humans."

There was one on the front lawn of Ms. Standiford's home on Upnor Road.

She is now 16 and her efforts to make her Homeland neighbors more eco-aware have paid off. Some Homelanders have actually stopped using the pesticides in their lawns. A clerk at a local hardware store that sells lawn-care chemicals hands out Ms. Standiford's newsletter to customers. She will be listed as a "Good Guy of the Month" in the 1992 edition of Workman Publishing's "365 Ways To Save Our Planet" calendar. Just two weeks ago, Ms. Standiford was the subject of a feature story in a weekly newspaper.

Three days after the article appeared, the eco-terrorists attacked.

"There were four of them, teen-agers," said Stephanie Standiford, Sarah's mother. "I saw them from the second-floor window. One of them had one of those spray-containers on his back; it was cylindrical."

The nocturnal attack left just about all of the Standifords' azalea bushes dead. Whatever the vandals sprayed on the front lawn left it straw-brown. The pachysandra is dead, as are most of the perennials in the Standifords' back yard garden. There is also a large patch of dead grass in the rear lawn. Estimates on a fix-up run into thousands of dollars.

Police took a report of the incident. An inspector from the state Department of Agriculture told the Standifords that a concentrated herbicide was used on the lawn and the bushes. In other words, this might have been a professional job.

Parties unknown must have been trying to make an eco-political statement on the front lawn. They must thought a little terrorism would make Sarah Standiford drop her anti-pesticide campaign.

No way. The campaign continues. Some things, after all, even chemicals can't kill.

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