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Saturday, June 8, 2013
Saturday is National Get Outdoors Day and World Oceans Day — a great time to get some oxygen in the blood and return to our senses.
That we’ve lost some good sense is a message signaling to us from every direction these days. To heal the world, we need all of our senses.
But I’m choosing the sense of smell to tackle here, because I’ve known early June in Virginia as one pure intoxicant, with its cracked-open ancient treasure chests of divine vapors.
At the seashore, there existed a world of piercing smells before the breeze became gassy with loud speed boats and jet skis and biplanes.
It was also a world predating those excessive chemical perfumes that dog humans wherever we go now, and those overwhelming, toxic fabric softeners exhaling warmly from thousands of dryer vents along a shoreline.
Those former beaches (and some still-remote ones today, I hear) smelled plainly of ancient, oyster-odored brine, fish rot, hot sand and wind-rattle sea oats.
They smelled of the dank, slimy, barnacled undersides of fishing piers and old salty chunks of busted sea wall or broken buoys, and further inland, of the reedy vegetable steam expiring from deep thickets around the inland waterways.
Here in the mountains, we inhaled other intoxicants — the baking of green-apple pies and picnic biscuits and bacon for wilted-lettuce suppers, or the neighborhoods billowing with fresh new leaves and rain-drenched storm-drains clumped with gold maple-seeds and oak tassels.
In the countryside were divine whiffs of pastures, cow manure and first mowings, wind-and-sun-sweetened haystacks.
The woods, meanwhile, smelled deeper and thicker than strong tea, the forest creeks ushering up millions of years of leaf rot and logs, eroded limestone/sandstone, periwinkle mollusks clinging clammily to rocks under the rapids, and the cool understories of black-as-night rhododendron glades.
And the river smells! The sycamore-decay-steeped silt, the mineral odors of waters pouring through rocks and conveying the dregs of ancient, long-eroding mountains and the karst subterranean caves.
Bringing it home
I could go on for volumes, having so deep a love for the natural, delicious places I’ve been blessed to know. For I can’t imagine knowing them nearly so intimately as having inhaled them into the heart and blood vessels and thus all body cells and (since those cells vanish regularly, yet the divine vapors remain in one’s consciousness) apparently the soul.
But here I’d like to make a turn, even a request for our collective return to sense — so that these un-buyable sensations and places I’ve described can be known, as they were to humans 50,000 years ago, by humans in the centuries and millennia to come.
Besides getting yourself and others outdoors frequently, there are many ways to help the creatures and people and places we don’t realize we’re harming through the shut-down of human sensibilities.
The late Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, who died June 3 at age 89, had been working hard on one — a Senate bill to clear some air, protect our nation’s streamwater and bloodstreams, and help American consumers use our senses when it comes to contaminating our water, air and households.
Lautenberg, standing up to well-monied chemical industry giants, thought we U.S. citizens should be allowed to know what toxic, carcinogenic and organ-destroying compounds compose the manufactured fragrances, perfumes and household products we pour daily into our homes, bathtubs, clothes washers and environment, with no information about the contents.
Together with New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (and a growing number of co-sponsors), Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act in April 2013. It was supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The bill would have allowed the EPA to list publicly, examine and regulate the currently hidden, undisclosed toxic chemicals flowing through various American products, from carcinogenic flame-retardants to diapers, dish soaps to perfumes, detergents to air fresheners.
Independent researchers, who study and analyze product ingredients themselves, have found hundreds of questionable or harmful chemicals in everyday products, many of them notoriously deadly or mutagenic to aquatic life and laboratory animals.
Others of these unlisted-on-the-label chemicals, particularly packaged under the vague term “fragrance,” are known to promote organ failure, tumors, cancer, reproductive disorders and asthma.
Lautenberg thought Americans should be allowed to know this, because few of us would willingly poison our own air, homes, families, rivers or ocean.
Because of heavy chemical-industry opposition and its influence, Lautenberg had to broker a compromise bill, called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act, in May with his leading opponent, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.
Although a much weaker version of the original bill, with vague standards and no deadlines, the proposed bill at least opens the way for change and is worth our attention.
Lautenberg’s hard work and his many supporters — from both parties and all walks of life — indicate that we Americans recognize good sense when we see it, and do long for a healthy world that our senses can know and love.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
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