Lawn mowers, snow blowers, corn borers and H.L. Mencken

June 10, 1994|By P. J. Wingate

THE Environmental Protection Agency recently announced that it is starting a program to reduce air pollution caused by the operation of lawn mowers, snow blowers, garden cultivators, chain saws and similar power devices.

Since all of these things combined use less fuel than one-tenth of a percent of the gasoline, diesel fuel and heating oil burned in the nation, it is difficult to imagine what remarkable assumptions and calculations the EPA must have made in researching their conclusion that pollution from these devices is a serious problem.

Perhaps the EPA believed it would be obvious to anyone visiting such polluted areas as New York City, Dallas and Los Angeles that the multitude of lawn mowers in Manhattan and the snow blowers in Dallas and Los Angeles are a much greater menace to clean air than the automobiles and trucks cruising the streets there, or the jet planes flying overhead. Consequently, the EPA decided that attention should be given to the development of catalytic after-burners to improve the combustion efficiency of lawn mowers.

All this may astonish some people, but it should not, because the Washington bureaucracy has been coming up with solutions to imaginary problems for many years. It reminds me of H. L. Mencken's statement about the art of politics, and my own small role in a crusade against the European corn borer, many years ago.

Mencken wrote in 1919 that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the public alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins." One of these hobgoblins in 1931 was the belief by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the European corn borer, a little white worm which eats the stalks of growing corn plants, and had first been detected in the cornfields of New Jersey, would be a disaster of giant proportions if it were to spread to the Midwest. The nation's basic food supply would be endangered, the department said. Its answer to this threat was to organize a small army of college students to search the cornfields of the northeastern states to see if the corn borer was spreading from New Jersey -- and if so, how fast and how far.

I was a foot soldier in this army of students who were paid $28 per week, a royal salary in those days, given trucks and assigned to search for corn borers in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York. We soon found corn borers in all these states and reported these findings to the supervisor who visited each team about once a week. Late in August I asked the supervisor of my group what the department did with this information.

"They put a pin in the map of the United States," he said, "showing where corn borers have been found."

"What happens then?" I asked, and he said, "Nothing, until the department decides on a course of action. Then we may set up roadblocks to prevent corn products from being shipped from an infected area to one which is free of borers."

No roadblocks were set up in 1931, but in 1932 a new army of searchers was assembled. I was delighted to repeat, even though the pay had been cut to $22.50 a week. While I was surprised to be assigned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where borers had already been found in 1931, I went gladly, and we quickly found more corn borers in every county east of the Chesapeake Bay. For our last week of the season, my team was assigned to Baltimore City, where we found no borers, chiefly, I suspect, because we found only one cornfield -- a small one on the grounds of Sheppard Pratt.

I knew Baltimore fairly well then and told our supervisor that the department probably meant to assign us to Baltimore County, which did grow a lot of corn, but he said his orders were clear: They said Baltimore, and to him that meant Baltimore City. Anyway, we searched that small field at Sheppard Pratt for a week and reported it free of borers.

I never learned whether the corn borer search program carried over into 1933, but I did notice that no roadblocks were set up for corn borers in Maryland. In fact, I forgot all about the corn borer and its threat to the food supply of the nation until 1980, when I read a government report on corn production in the United States. It said production of corn was more than twice what it had been 50 years earlier, and the yield per acre was nearly three times what it had been then. This great improvement in production and yield per acre was attributed to several things, such as denser planting of corn in the row, better fertilizers and insecticides and improved hybrid types of corn. The corn borer was mentioned only briefly. It was now also a potato borer, a tomato borer and a cotton borer, but it was not a significant threat to any of these crops.

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