Somewhere near you, a farm sprayer is coming. This season, small planes hover over fields, spraying fungicides and pesticides. They dodge trees and telephone lines and get as low as possible for aerial application.
To city dwellers, their stunts are mostly invisible, but to country dwellers, these planes are part of the summer rhythm, engines roaring, wings flapping, looping through the blue sky for another sweep of the neighbor’s cornfields.
Heather Roller, a professor of history and environmental studies at Colgate University, was in town with two of her student assistants, Katie Moser and Anna Miksis. They hurried into my office, fleeing the Canadian wildfire smoke that enveloped us. They are conducting research for Heather’s new book, A Social and Environmental History of Agricultural Chemicals.
Unlike most research on pesticides, Heather’s book focuses not on the chemical constituents of pesticides, but on their impact on rural households. How do rural people experience pesticides in their lives? in their community? How do they see their role in the landscape? What stories do rural people tell about agrochemicals? How do these substances shape the ecological world of farmers?
Most of my neighbors are Amish who grow organically without using agricultural chemicals. But most farmers in the state use conventional farming methods, following an established system of plowing, planting genetically modified seeds, and applying herbicides and pesticides.
“What do you think caused Lloyd’s cancer?” I once heard my neighbors discuss their cousin’s death. “So young. 50, right?”
“I don’t know. It might be sprayed medicine.”
“I suppose so.”
Farmers are often fatalistic about the system, knowing it could damage their health. But other options are not easy. Switching to organic farming is a slow and expensive process.
It is these perceptions, or their opposite, that Heather seeks to capture in her book. She, Katie, and Ana drove to northern Iowa to interview a farmer whose father had likely died from exposure to agricultural chemicals. The difficult death of the father led the son down a different path, embracing regenerative agriculture.
“Humans and the environment interact,” Heather said. “We have to see them both as actors in history.”
Professor Roller’s most recent material comes from research she conducted in Brazil. She studies the indigenous people there and the dramatic environmental changes they face near the Amazon.
Ana Miksis grew up in a Superfund-polluted suburb of Massachusetts. Friends of her parents became activists, warning people of the dangers of cancer clusters.
Katie Mercer has always been passionate about animals, especially horses, and the role these animals have played in urban environments. That interest led her to enroll in Heather’s introductory environmental history course.
Heather’s own personal experiences have also had an impact on her life’s work. While on vacation in Europe with her parents, Heather was in the same area as the downwind of the Chernobyl accident. Later, both Heather and her mother were diagnosed with lymphoma and received treatment. Heather went into remission, but sadly, her mother passed away from the disease.
“In my environmental history class, we talk about defining moments,” Heather said. “Some groups have had to face problems earlier. For example, indigenous groups have had to face environmental crises since the beginning of colonialism, and they have a deep sense of coping and adapting to these problems, and often deal with them collectively. Other groups sometimes reach that decisive moment after a later, longer period of denial.
“In my course we also talked about a term called ‘predatory delay’. There are institutions and businesses whose interest is to prevent necessary action and keep people in the dark about the urgency of our present moment. Don’t blame people for their denial or blissful ignorance. In a way, these situations are deliberately created by powerful people. Hence the term ‘predatory delay’. in.”
“We talked about fossil fuel companies,” Ana said. “We talked about Oresquez and Conway’s book, Merchant of Doubt. There are people with enormous resources who can influence our government’s environmental regulations. People with resources can sow enough suspicion that those regulations are pushed aside.”
Predatory delays silence critics. The danger of pesticides is an example. In the 1960s, marine biologist Rachel Carson, herself dying of breast cancer, tried to get her scientific colleagues to write a book on pesticides and the damage they caused to the environment.
All scientists refused. This topic is so controversial. There is too much pressure to keep silent and not put one’s own research funding sources at risk. So, Carson wrote the book himself, enduring ridicule from the chemical industry. Eventually, Silent Spring became a bestseller, and the use of DDT was limited.
Historian Heather Roller and her acolytes may finally shape our environmental narratives, addressing the skepticism and misinformation that led us to where we are today. Ultimately, we may save the beautiful landscape we call home and embrace our role as historical actors. In the meantime, we’ll endure more smog as pesticide-spraying planes circle overhead.