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Nancy Gift: Weed Fight Lands Me in the Principal’s Office

Nancy Gift is the author of A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Don't Plant. Gift is an assistant professor of environmental studies and acting director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and a lawn full of weeds.

October 14, 2009

Book cover for A Weed By Any Other Name by Nancy Gift Next Friday, I'm meeting with my daughters' principal. The meeting isn't directly about my kids, though if not for them I wouldn't be going. This time, my daughters didn't do anything wrong, nor anything particularly wonderful, nor even cause trouble on the playground, but I'm nervous about the meeting, anyway. I've rallied the troops and called in reinforcements, making waves at school, in advocacy for the schoolyard weeds.

For the last several years, I have received notices from school, supposedly telling me when and where a pesticide would be applied to the school grounds. I've looked at them for all this time, and so far, have read and ignored them, because the pesticides have been aimed at mulched areas in front. Some ofthe herbicides bother me more than others, but since all have involved spaces that my children didn't directly contact, and which I didn't really want to hand-weed as a volunteer, I ignored the notices.

Last week's notice, which I got on a Wednesday afternoon, was different. On the space where it told "where," the answer in bold was "lawns," and that single answer made me look twice. Lawns are where my kids play. School yard lawns are supposed to have flowers and weeds, because those provide entertainment for children. Plantain, dandelion, clover: these are schoolyard weeds which every kid should know, even if no one at school knows the Latin for them.
I then looked up the EPA registration on the herbicide, MEC something or other -- herbicide trade names are always changing, with new combinations and ratios so variable that no one could expect to follow the market, any more than we expect to recognize companies on a 2-bit stock exchange. I looked at the active ingredient, just as anyone in a drug store knows to look for acetaminophen on the generic Tylenol. And I looked again, in shock: the ingredient was 2,4-D.

I could describe 2,4-D in shocking terms -- giving its history alone would be enough to make most parents wonder what on earth that product is doing on a schoolyard. But the truth is more subtle than the shocking history, and the truth about 2,4-D shocks in whispers, not shouts. 2,4-D is one of the most commonly used lawn herbicides, as it has the convenient property of killing dandelions and not grass. Clover is killed too, and while initially, when 2,4-D was introduced, it would have been considered a civilian casualty in the war on weeds, an advertising campaign later made it seem a co-conspirator with the evil dandelion. Children and pets who live on lawns which are treated have higher rates of cancer, including leukemia. Women whose lawns are treated have higher rates of breast cancer. We don't always know which product is to blame, but it wouldn't be ethical to do a study which proved guilt beyond a shadow of doubt. Many people, including me, suspect 2,4-D is one of the culprits in these statistics.

Oct09 012 First, I called the school secretary and asked if I could speak to the principal. While I waited for him to call back, I called the landscaper to express my concerns about the application, and we had a really collegial discussion about it. He referred me to the district grounds manager, who wasn't in, but I left a message. Meanwhile the principal called back, who clearly knew nothing about it all, but I warned him that I was unhappy about the application and planning to "raise a stink." I then emailed a handful of moms I know -- no more than 10 -- and emailed two reporters in the city paper who've been supportive of my ideas about weeds. I tried to calm myself down at this point, to wait and see what happened.
The district grounds manager called back the next morning, Thursday. He told me that he understood it to be "as toxic as table salt." He also told me he gets pressure to make the athletic fields look good. A school board member told one mom that the application is to address the problem of children with bee sting allergies. Among these answers, only the bee sting allergy looks really reasonable, as that is the only issue which addresses the fundamental question of interest to all of us: child safety. I, in turn, was clear about my fears, clear about the fact that I don't react this way about all herbicides, clear about the fact that I've used herbicides myself and respect them. I reiterated, though, that I was really unhappy about this application, that I had alerted other parents, and that I planned to try to stop it from happening. Both the grounds person and the landscaper told me I sounded "reasonable" -- as if they were surprised? -- which I was trying desperately to be, and to sound, but not sure I was feeling it at all.

I believe the allergy issue is a red herring, but still, bee sting allergies are a problem I can discuss with assumption of common values. My husband is a survivor of an anaphylactic reaction to yellow jacket stings, and I have sat with him in ER, waiting after a more minor bee sting to see if he would react strongly enough to be admitted (he didn't). My heart wrenched when I read Barbara Kingsolver's short story "Covered Bridges," about a couple who decides not to bear children because of the wife's life-threatening reaction to a bee sting incurred while sipping a can of soda. I am not a parent of an allergic child, but I know this: I would never want to have to ask myself if I were responsible for a child dying of a bee sting reaction at school.

Still, 2,4-D scares me more than bee stings. Honey bees, the primary stinging insects which would be interested in schoolyard weeds, are relatively docile, as the act of stinging kills the bee -- she will sting only for the defense of her hive or sisters. Wasps are the far more dangerous stingers, because they can sting repeatedly (and therefore take little provocation to try it), but they don't pay much attention to clover. They'd be more interested in smears of grape jelly left on a kids' face after lunch, but herbicides can't protect children against wasps (or grape jelly, for that matter).
Oct09 008 By Thursday afternoon I started getting back other emails -- but now, from parents. My email had been forwarded to the right people, apparently, and some were calling the district as well. At least one, maybe more, called school board members. Up until 4:00 pm, when I left work on Thursday, the district was holding out. I went home to soccer practice and to build a chicken coop. The reporter called, and at that point I felt calm, and a bit despondent. I discussed with my daughters that I didn't want them playing in the grass at school the next week, and they agreed -- Hazel told me she would warn her best friend, too. I had brief visions of a child-led playground boycott.

By Friday morning, though, the boulder had budged from its spot on the mountain. I awoke to an email that the application was being canceled, or at least postponed for further discussion. The news traveled that day, and the next morning traveled further with the headline "Local moms...". I started hearing congratulations, and am still getting more correspondence from allies, active and passive both, who are glad to see the spray halted.

Garden club friends, active on the township grounds committee, have offered to share tips on pesticide-free lawn maintenance with the school district. Other parents continue to step forward, and one neighbor, a former consultant turned power mom, has set up our meeting with the principal. Another friend went the district forum this morning (Tuesday) and reported that the school board still thinks the application important for "allergies and asthma" (!?) and believes that 2,4-D is "as toxic as table salt." The battle isn't over, and I'll be saying my piece again, I have no doubt. I may even have to remind the school board that most allergies and asthma are from grass pollen, so if that is the trigger, then the less grass in the schoolyard, the better.

But the boulder moved, and I think it is rolling downhill now. I'm hopeful that momentum is growing, and that by the end of this it will not be about me and my troublemaking emails and phone calls at all, but about our kids, and the fact that schoolyard weeds are better for them than herbicides. I'm hopeful that by next fall, my meetings with the principal can once again be about my daughters and their lives, their education, and their health. And maybe, even, what kinds of trouble they cause on the playground.

October 25, 2009

The principal, in retrospect, was the least of my worries, for his boss, an assistant superintendent, was so bullishly insistent on herbicide application -- "for aesthetics," no less! -- that the principal actually spoke not a word. We, the parents of the meeting, continued to lobby the one school board member who seemed to be listening, via email. Today, we just heard back: our elementary school will have herbicide-free lawns for one year, as a pilot project.

I'd like to think that I'm noble enough to fight for any child's right to an herbicide-free schoolyard, not just my own. And no question, I would; all children should be able to roll down hillsides or wrestle with their sisters on pesticide-free turf, even children of rival elementary schools. My hope, then, is that this pilot site succeeds, and that it is the beginning of a larger victory, the kind of slow but thorough victory that leaves people with minds changed, not just bullied into submission. In that best-case scenario, environmental change would begin with "thinking locally," even if the particular "local" is a bit smaller than I hoped.

And if the pilot fails, too much clover grows, and they decide to treat with a differently toxic lawn herbicide, well, they won't have heard the last from me about it. According to what I've seen, boulders and children both will keep rolling downhill.