In the 1980s, I had what appeared to be an annual siege of illness. During the month of April, I developed what I thought were colds that were so severe that I was unable to hold classes. The peculiar aspect was that I would seem to be getting over the cold, would return to work, and then the cold, or whatever, became severe again.
During one of these sieges, I was scheduled to travel to Michigan to deliver a paper at an academic conference. I went to the doctor and explained that I needed to be able to drive. In examining me, he looked puzzled and concerned, wrote some prescriptions, and said I had to take precautions to keep the respiratory problem from turning into pneumonia. He told me that if I felt worse along the way to stop and be checked over.
The drive to Michigan from Aberdeen is about 1,000 miles, so I broke the trip up into two days. I drove south to I-80 and then east so that I could spend the night at my brother's in Illinois. When I hit Des Moines, I was feeling lousy. As I had attended the University of Iowa for graduate school, I was acquainted with the University clinic, so I called and arranged to stop there to be checked over.
That is where I hit it lucky. The doctor I saw at the clinic said there was a pulmonary specialist at the clinic who was on leave from his practice to be part of a research program on agricultural medicine. She called the man in. He spent a great deal of time taking notes on this annual medical problem I had and asking me questions. He then explained that the symptoms I had probably were not caused by disease organisms, but from toxins in the air that the spring winds blew up from the farm soils before vegetation grew over them to reduce the wind erosion. At that time, the minimum tillage-no till agriculture was in its beginnings. Every spring, the wind whipped up the soil into the air. I recall news stories about how many tons of top soil the Dakotas lost each spring.
And I recall the most frightening experience I had. When driving down by Pierre I was caught in a black blizzard of soil from fallow fields. I could no longer see the road or have any sense of orientation and had to simply stop the car where I was at. When the wind relented enough so that I could see, I saw some tractor-trailers in front of me that also had to stop and pray that no other vehicles would crash into them.
The doctor told me that the the residues from pesticides and herbicides were being carried aloft in the blowing soil. He said that those days when the sky had a particularly pink cast to it, it was caused by dust and chemicals. Pink indicates pollution, he said. And he explained that, at that time, medical science did not know just what chemicals and toxins were in the air or just how the human body reacts to them, but the reason he was on a research sabbatical was because of the increase in respiratory problems he noted among his patients from the country. He said he had some farmers who had to wear air tanks to breathe. He checked the medicines my doctor prescribed and gave me some respiratory masks. He said I might have to get used to wearing them when the winds were high and the sky was pink. I continued on my way, and as I neared Michigan, where the sky was grey with clouds blowing in from Lake Michigan, my symptoms went away.
Since that time, agricultural practices have changed to minimum and no tillage practices which leave organic covers on open fields that hold down the dirt and residues during the windy spring weather. Over the years, my annual bout with respiratory problems ended, for the most part. I haven't thought about trudging about my business with a dust mask on my face for a long time.
But I have thought about the anti-environmental movement and its mission to abolish the EPA, to permit full scale extraction of things from the earth with practices such as fracking, to encourage industrialized agriculture, and to reduce the public lands that are held for conservation purposes. There are many people out there who dismiss any concern or interest in conserving and improving the environment.
Today is Earth Day, which produces more anti-environmental propaganda from the conservative caucus than it does any conservation actions from those who think a healthy environment is important. At this point in the political schemes of things, all I can say is Happy Pink Sky Day. If you really want to live on a healthy earth, you may have to find it on another planet.