Fateful Harvest. By Duff Wilson. HarperCollins Publishers. 336 pages. $26.
This is a book we should not be reading. Or one we’ve read too often. A local woman grows increasingly suspicious about the activities of a powerful corporation. As environmental problems mount, she persists and becomes a pariah. Enter a big-city journalist who joins her search for the truth. Together, they uncover a widespread, but heretofore secret, practice that may place tens of thousands of Americans at risk. But, once the headlines disappear, so does the outcry.
Duff Wilson, a reporter for the Seattle Times, met Patty Martin of Quincy, Washington, in 1996. Like all good reporters, he listened to her story with skepticism. Toxic waste was routinely being applied as fertilizer, she said. The soil in her farm town was being poisoned.
Martin’s evidence was sketchy and decidedly circumstantial—failed crops, sick horses, tainted groundwater, all of which could have been caused by many things, as she was constantly reminded by her neighbors and the “experts.” She would not be appeased. In Martin’s eyes, the prime suspect was the agribusiness that dominated her small farming community, and she now directed the same boundless energy and civic-mindedness that had once earned her the mayor’s job toward unearthing a villain and sounding an alarm.
Wilson began digging too. Over the ensuing months, he documented, in a series of articles later nominated for a Pulitzer, that many industries have found the ideal use for their hazardous waste: They simply rename it fertilizer. In an era of cradle-to-grave tracking of dangerous chemicals, Wilson was amazed to discover that soil supplements are tested only for the presence of growth-enhancing chemicals; there are no restrictions on what else can be in there. Commingled with the zinc, for example, can be dioxin, lead, mercury, chromium, and arsenic. Instead of winding up in hazardous-waste disposal facilities, these industrial by-products can be sold to farmers without so much as a warning label. It’s all perfectly legal, writes Wilson. It’s called recycling.
“What they’re doing is using agriculture as part of this waste stream,” Duke Giraud, a local farmer and Martin ally, told Wilson on one of his early visits to Quincy. “Instead of paying $200 a ton to get rid of it, you could sell it.”
At first, Wilson and Martin believed that the local agribusiness, Cenex, was a “renegade,” dumping to save money. But Wilson soon concluded, “Almost everybody in the industry was doing it in one way or another.” And this wasn’t a problem just in the state of Washington. Regulators in the nation’s major farming states all told Wilson the same thing he heard from an agriculture official in Florida: “There’s a lot of materials out there that have plant nutrient values, but nobody knows what else is in them.” When it comes to determining what can and cannot be included, Wilson reports, the ag-chemical industry is regulating itself. As a result, coal ash, mill tailings, asbestos, nuclear materials, and acids are routinely being spread on the nation’s farmland.
How can this be, in a nation where 275,000 people wrote to the Department of Agriculture to oppose an “organic” listing for genetically modified foodstuffs? The only explanation Wilson can find is less than satisfactory: In their haste to promote recycling of industrial wastes, and to win the crucial support of the agricultural and chemical industries, state and federal governments have turned a blind eye to this problem. The few efforts to impose controls, or even put the issue on the national agenda, have foundered.
Wilson concludes Fateful Harvest with an all-too-familiar question: “Do toxic-laced fertilizers make my food unsafe?” His answer: Nobody knows. But nobody’s bothered to find out. In the meantime, the lack of proof and the convenience of industry keep the practice very much alive. How many times have we heard all this before? —Susan Q. Stranahan
The Pickup By Nadine Gordimer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.
A white woman’s car breaks down in a crowded, multi-ethnic section of an unnamed South African city, presumably Johannesburg. She invites the mechanic who fixes her car to join her for coffee. He is from “a country she had barely heard of,” living without papers under an assumed name, working for less money than a legal resident would earn, hoping nonetheless to better his lot. She prides herself on being open to anyone and anything, and introduces him to her like-minded middle-class bohemian friends. She brings him home to bed and, though the word is never spoken, they fall in love.
The characters in Nadine Gordimer’s newest novel do have names, but their names don’t matter much. Nor, in the end, does place; The Pickup could just as easily be set in New York or Los Angeles as in post-apartheid South Africa. It could be anywhere in a world divided between two kinds of people, those with choices and those without. Nobel laureate Gordimer, now 78, here explores the meeting of these two worlds—one guided by possibility, the other by survival—with unflagging intelligence and care. If it is at times overly schematic, The Pickup never bores, and never fails to challenge. —Ben Ehrenreich
Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail. By Rubén Martínez. Metropolitan Books. $25.
In this engaging and timely book, journalist Rubén Martínez shadows one family among the hundreds who, every day, cross from Mexico to “the other side.” He tells the story of the Chávez family, a close-knit clan from the small Mexican town of Cheran. The Chávezes have the tragic distinction of having just buried three sons—Benjamín, Jaime, and Salvador—who perished in a car accident on a Southern California highway just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Because the brothers were not supposed to be north of the border at all—having crossed illegally—and because the truck in which they were riding was trying to evade the Border Patrol when it overturned, Martínez’s implication is that an illogical and needlessly restrictive immigration policy helped create the tragedy.
Martínez’s vivid narrative retraces the steps of the three brothers. He takes readers on a bus ride to Cheran to meet the surviving members of the Chávez family, and then north across the U.S. border to the fields and factories where these men had tried to stake out better lives. By attaching names, voices, tears, and dreams to these men, Martínez takes us beyond the immigration statistics and reminds us just how high the stakes are for many in this, one of America’s most complicated public-policy debates. —Ruben Navarrette Jr.
FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio. By Richard Neer. Villard. $24.95.
Rarely is an author so uniquely suited to his subject as Richard Neer is to the sad story he records in FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio. In the late ’60s, when the AM band was devoted to Top 40 and standards, the birth of FM provided a perfect outlet for the times: free-form radio for a free-form era. Rock radio was no longer limited to a tight collection of hit singles and chirpy jingles: “The disk jockeys had total freedom to play whatever records they chose. They could say what they wanted, whenever they wanted,” writes Neer, onetime DJ and program director for New York’s WNEW. But by the early ’70s, FM’s freedom was already under siege by corporate owners eager to squeeze their stations for cash. And Neer, despite his nostalgia for the freewheelin’ good old days, was always there to help. As early as 1970, he strove to “homogenize the sound” at his then employer, WLIR. By 1981, he had fired the DJ who had been his childhood hero and implemented a system that “effectively marked the end of commercial free-form radio in New York.” FM emerges as a study in spinelessness, an apologia for a career of moral compromise. —Ben Ehrenreich
The Convincer. Nick Lowe. Yep Rock.
Clown prince of England’s New Wave two decades ago, Nick Lowe continues to age gracefully. Long gone is the manic eclecticism of the self-styled “Jesus of Cool”: Over the last decade, he’s perfected a minimal, unironic style not far from Johnny Cash’s, while continuing to compose snappy pop tunes.
Employing a tangy guitar lick here, a delicate organ lick there, laments like “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” and “Bygones (Won’t Go)” beautifully depict what Lowe dubs the “exquisite hurt” of lost love. Proving he’s not always a sad sack, Lowe also lends his mellow everyman voice to the buoyant “She’s Got Soul,” with its breezy ’60s R&B vibe, and the leisurely “Let’s Stay In and Make Love.” Cozy and inviting, The Convincer lives up to its name. —Jon Young
Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt. Various Artists. Vanguard.
In celebrating Hurt’s timeless country blues, the more reverent contributors (including, surprisingly, Beck) seem intimidated by his elegance and grace. Others succeed by putting their own stamp on the material while preserving the understated beauty of the originals.
Victoria Williams’ wacky reading of “Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down” could be a transmission from a parallel dimension, while Gillian Welch invests “Beulah Land” with the high lonesome sound of her Appalachian reveries. On a raunchier note, Steve Earle turns the salacious “Candy Man” into a burly stomp, and the inventive Alvin Youngblood Hart swings with gritty verve on “Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me.” Like most tribute albums, Avalon Blues is uneven, but it contains some real gems. —Jon Young
Próxima Estación: Esperanza. Manu Chao. Virgin.
A border-hopping polycultural troubadour for the anti-globalization set, Manu Chao captures snapshots of the New World Order’s margins with funk, wit, and passion. Imagine the kind of music Woody Guthrie might have made if he were hanging out in a Zapatista jungle with a sampler. It’s not merely rock en español, but hip-hop, samba, salsa, rai, and ska in English, French, Arabic, and Portuguese, all rendered in a wickedly original, futuristic-sounding hybrid. “Me Gustas Tú” switches codes, locations, and sounds like a slowly overheating signal router to make an ancient point: You’re only as good as the love you bring. —Jeff Chang
Soldiers in the Army of God: America Undercover. Marc Levin, Daphne Pinkerson. 70 minutes. Blowback Productions.
For radical anti-abortion activists to invoke the Holocaust is no longer a surprise. But who’d have guessed that Mao Tse-tung would be reverently quoted by one of the pro-life “soldiers” in this unsettling portrait of the movement’s violent fringe? “Kill one, scare a thousand,” said the former chairman, whose formula would need to be multiplied by seven in order to represent the number of abortion-clinic workers who have been murdered since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade.
Bizarre reasoning abounds in this film, as when death-row inmate Paul Hill grinningly recalls the unexpected “lack of zeal” with which he gunned down two clinic workers in 1993. Elsewhere, Neal Horsley—whose notorious Web site listed the home addresses of abortion physicians—says he sees his radical work as entirely consistent with the marijuana dealing that landed him in prison decades ago. And then there’s the jovial Bob Lokey, proprietor of the “Save the Babies” Web site, whose claim that he has been “vaginally defeated my whole life” is one of many instances in the film that link this ostensibly religious movement to unholy misogyny.
Presenting their extremists in extreme close-up, Levin and Pinkerson never pull rank on the soldiers by disputing their logic. The filmmakers’ (perhaps naive) faith is that this army is fundamentally ill equipped to recruit new troops. —Rob Nelson
Home Movie. Chris Smith. 65 minutes. Independent Media.
This literally homey documentary begins with a quote from the late interior decorator T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings: “The surroundings that householders crave are glorified autobiographies.” In other words, our homes are ourselves. Home Movie explores the extremities of that maxim through an affectionate portrait of five highly alternative American dwellings and their correspondingly unusual owners.
We meet an Illinois robot enthusiast whose suburban rambler revolves by remote contol; a finicky pair of California kitty lovers who added 140 feet of indoor “cat path” to accommodate the prowling of their 11 felines; and a New Age Kansas couple who “mow the roof” above their underground digs in a former missile silo.
Unique as they are, these oddballs form an endearing community within the film. Home Movie pays such passionate tribute to American iconoclasm that it’s inspiring. —Rob Nelson