Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Barbarians At The Gates

Every now and then a book comes along that not only reaffirms my faith in humanity, but confirms the conclusions at which I've arrived over my well-over-half-a-century life on this planet.

The other day I stopped by the "new in paperpback" table at Barnes and Noble, where I spotted Ellen Sandbeck's new book, Green Barbarians. It only took a single glance at the cover for me to realize that I'd happened on a kindred spirit--and one I can't believe I hadn't heard of before, since the list of her previously published books should have come to my attention by now: Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles: Amusing and Useful Techniques for Nontoxic Housekeeping and Gardening; Eat More Dirt: Diverting and Instructive Tips for Growing and Tending an Organic Garden; Organic Housekeeping; and Green Housekeeping.

She also runs a vermiculture business at LaVerme's Worms. I felt automatic kinship, being myself the daughter of a vermiculturist. Well, sort of. According to my grandmother, my father once sold worms to fishermen in Big Pine, under the sign, "Worms, Tom." A worm composter is in my future, I can already tell.

At any rate, this newest book gives me permission, backed by scads of research and evidence, to do what I've been doing for most of my life. It also supports my contention that the environment in which I grew up has helped me to remain relatively healthy in spite of my crappy cardiac genes and all the toxic gunk the modern world seems bent on tossing my way.

Sandbeck urges us to throw away our hand sanitizer, eschew fears of rampant germs, trash our deodorants and air fresheners, and "live bravely" on our home planet: music to my ears, and fresh air to my phthalate-clogged nasal passages.

I can now go forth to the Facilities guy at school and present him with documentation that the "perfume launchers" positioned outside the elevators will, in fact, interfere with the sexual development of any children that come in contact with them, and cause all manner of breathing problems to those forced to breath in artificial cinnamon particulates, or what I've dubbed "Eau de Los Angeles Bus Terminal Bathroom." I spent several weeks during my first Texas exile riding Greyhound buses to California and back, and grew quite used to (albeit not fond of) the aroma of the ubiquitous toilet-freshener cakes. Anyway, I needed some ammunition to support my claim that these instruments not only don't smell all that great, but are actually bad for us, and now Sandbeck has successfully armed me.

There is also support for my frequent contentions that living near an open sewer in Taipei probably inoculated me against just about every bug Asia has to offer--including seasonal varieties of influenza (and probably even H1N1). We lived around chickens and pigs in various places in and around Taipei, and undoubtedly inhaled every virus then in circulation--most of which make the rounds every few years. Most Americans never come in contact with honey buckets or pigs or even chickens, and this may explain the high rates of H1N1 deaths in the United States, compared with Asia. I checked and found out that the U.S. has suffered a higher rate of mortality (35.28 percent of cases) than a whole slew of Asian countries combined (I counted totals from Mongolia, China, North and South Korea, and Malaysia, whose total mortality rate is around 27 percent).

Despite warnings against doing so, I also frequently went barefoot in Taiwan. I did, as warned, catch round worms at one point, and then overcame them, as did most natives. But my gut has behaved as if shielded with cast iron since, and I've rarely been visited with intestinal critters of any sort. My general good health (as compared with someone undernourished) allowed my body to overcome the critters that sought to use it as an incubator.

Green Barbarians covers a considerable amount of ground, including our cultural timidity about dirt and odor, our current preoccupation with antimicrobial hand cleaners, and even our absurd, almost religious obsession with youthful looks. Sandbeck quite successfully rubs our noses in it all, convincingly enough that I will be a great deal more careful about what I put on my lips (to avoid my tendency to look like a corpse) than about how much dirt I get on my hands.

There are many reasons why we shouldn't be so concerned about cleanliness, not the least of which is that we use enormous amounts of water to flush away body waste, clean our dishes, brush our teeth, bathe our bodies, and prettify our landscapes. A healthy respect for dirt and what it can do for us (instead of to us), would make us all better dwellers on this planet. It might also help keep us from poisoning ourselves and our surroundings in our efforts to make things all clean and shiny.

So any of my students who want to complain about my edict against fragrance in the classroom, beware: I now have even better reasons for threatening dire consequences if you marinate yourself in cologne. Also, you'll have much more money to buy books if you stop buying expensive cosmetics, body sprays, air fresheners, and toilet bowl cleaners. Invest in a good bar of Castile soap and a jug of white vinegar, get more exercise to brighten your cheeks, and we'll all be happier and healthier.

Neither Sandbeck nor I are saying that you shouldn't wash your hands to prevent the spread of disease, or that you shouldn't bathe once in a while. But too little dirt is probably even worse than too much. And we only have to look at the lovey microbes that open this post to remember that there are positive and negative results to be realized from the organisms that populate this earth. We wouldn't be green (or even here at all) were it not for cyanobacteria--but too much of it leads to algal blooms and pond death. What we really need is to keep things in balance.

Read this book; it will change your life.

Image credit: this light micrograph of Cyanobacteria from Guerrero Negro, Baja California, Mexico, was uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Vojtěch Dostál. More lovely views of tiny organisms are available on NASA's light micrograph page.


jabblog said...

As the old saying has it, 'You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die'. Some might add, 'or you might die sooner than you should'. Among other things that irritate me are 'air fresheners' - what's wrong with opening a window? - unless, of course, you live in the country and risk being choked by fertiliser fumes.

Owlfarmer said...

Sandbeck (along with you and me) has no patience for air fresheners, either--especially the rather forceful kind she calls "perfume launchers." I've hated the "plug in" kind since they were invented. Over twenty years ago, when I was a teaching assistant, one of my office mates stuck one in the office. I had to wrap it up in foil and stick in a drawer in order to be able to work in that room. My militancy against forcibly introduced scent began then, when I insisted that it be removed.

Dave Coulter said...

Looks like a great book :)

Martha Z said...

DIL complains about all the laundry she has to do. I bite my tongue, a garment doesn't have to be washed every time it is worn.
Should I admit it? When my children were young and the night diaper didn't hold, I often aired out the crib sheet rather than wash it!

Unknown said...

Greetings Candace!

I sincerely apologize for the intrusion, but I ran across your lovely blog and was very pleased about what you wrote about "Green Barbarians!"

Since publishers no longer promote books that weren't written by famous people, the task of getting books to sell has largely fallen upon the books' authors. Hence this message to you!

Would you be willing to write a review of "Green Barbarians" on I have only gotten one review so far and I need all the help I can get!

Thank you very much!


Ellen Sandbeck

Nishant said...

a garment doesn't have to be washed every time it is worn

Work From Home

Owlfarmer said...

In case anybody missed it in her comment, Sandbeck's new blog is here: