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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Smallpox, Seuss, and the Chesapeake Bay: The Earth Day Reading Project

I was asked by Marguerite from Canoe Corner to write about books that motivated me towards a more eco-friendly existence. I am honored and intrigued by the concept because it wasn't a question I had ever pondered before. An avid reader, I am drawn towards books that force me to view a situation from a perspective other than my own.

You may find the first book I chose an ill-fit for this topic but it's affect on me was profound. Every fire needs a spark and I discovered in this book the fuel to make choices that are sometimes considered unconventional but that led me to choose to live a life of authenticity rather than expectation.

The Speckled Monster  A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox by Jennifer Lee Carrell is the true story of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, revolutionaries in the fight against smallpox through inoculation. Both smallpox survivors, neither Lady Mary nor Dr. Boylston followed the social conventions of the early 1700's and sought alternative methods of fighting the disease as a way of protecting their families. Soliciting advice from African slaves and women met while traveling in Turkey, Lady Mary returned to London determined to help end a horrific smallpox epidemic through inoculation. Dr. Boylston of Boston, Massachusetts, like Lady Mary, sought advice from African slaves who, having been inoculated before being captured, were resistant to the disease. Enduring death threats and the near death of his children, Dr. Boylston continued inoculating all those who were willing and helped end the smallpox epidemic of 1721.

What I found inspirational about this book was the tenacity of its main characters and their deep understanding of how the actions of one person can be transformative in the lives of others. They refused to be bound by expectation or conformity and instead chose to live radically. Dr. Boylston was as quiet as Lady Mary was flamboyant but their refusal to passively accept their given roles saved the lives of thousands and led to vaccination studies by Louis Jenner and other scientists.

I live in a suburb of suffocating sameness but refuse to bow to the ease of chemicals and jumbo sized garbage cans. I polled my students recently about how many of them recycled. One replied that her family chose not to because "it was too hard." If Dr. Boylston and Lady Mary can fight smallpox, I can fight apathy and laziness.

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss, despite its obvious message to save the planet from deforestation, describes the ability of one person to ignore the needs of the environment for personal gain. The manufacture of Thneeds from truffula tree fiber corrupts the entire ecosystem that depend on the truffula trees.  Written in 1971, I find the book disturbing and provocative. It forces me to question my purchases and always consider the impact of my actions. The story ends with the gift of a single truffula tree seed and reminds me that hope is always just a garden away. 

The last book isn't a book, but The Washington Post newspaper. When I moved to northern Virginia eight years ago, I knew the Chesapeake Bay was pretty and full of crabs, but that was about it. When I was hired to teach English/Writing and science, I was expected to teach a unit on water and the waterways of Virginia. I dove in, trying to learn as much as possible about the bay and our impact on its health. The Chesapeake Bay is an almost constant source of environmental news in my area. What I read was devastating. 80% of the bay is considered dead, the water so deprived of oxygen that it can no longer support plant or animal life. Nitrogen fueled algae from suburban fertilizer use is the second leading contributor to the massive dead zone within the bay. The storm drain in front of my house, like all the drains in my neighborhood, delivers its polluted load to nearby rivers that all pour into the bay.

Our actions are always larger than ourselves. Every choice I made regarding my garden and lawn could potentially contribute to the death of the bay. At that point, I went completely organic. I know I can't save the world, but I'm not going to make it worse.


  1. Dr. Seuss! Of course!!

    Your picks for Earth Day reading are thoughtful and deeply considered. I really enjoyed learning about why you chose them, and about your desire to make an impact.

  2. Your first book is an interesting choice, but you make a great point about how learning of others who acted unconventionally influenced you to see how that can be done in other areas of our lives. I have heard there is hope for the Chesapeake Bay...I am pulling for it. Thanks for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project and Happy Earth Day!

  3. You would think with the extensive farming and use of pesticides and fertilizers over here on the Eastern Shore would be the culprit of the deadened bay, but according to the map it looks like the western shore has the dead part. Perhaps it is all the industrialization? Such a shame. I am glad you are doing your part to be green. When I live in a house under my own rules I plan on going completely organic as well, though it's not as easy over here. There are two stores close to here that sell organic goods. Both are over 30 miles away however.
    Hopefully, more organic stores will come this way!

  4. It is hard going against the masses isn't it, who are so convinced they are right. After all, they have numbers on their side.

    Wonderfully thought out Earth Day post. I enjoyed reading it.

    Happy Easter

  5. Oh how I love Dr. Seuss and this is one of my favorites! I think being progressive is the way to be! I love your choice of words "suffocating sameness"...describes suburbia perfectly. I can't tell you how my life has changed since I removed myself from that environment and moved to a more rural area where I can do my thing. It was so liberating. And, I am dumbfounded how lazy and complacent people are...recycling is too hard? Love your picks!

  6. Everybody - I'm glad my book picks resonated with you. :o) It took me a while to really think about which books I wanted to post about. Although, I thought of the smallpox book immediately.
    I find the masses to be massively lazy in many of their personal choices. I've seen adults throw trash into a can and when they miss and it lands on the ground, just keep walking. It's so infuriating!

    Karin - My husband and I would both love to live somewhere less congested, but the trade off for us would be more time in the car due to work commutes and various commitments. No easy answers for us!

  7. I too like the Dr. Seuss book. Always a good message in is writing. You do have thoughtful choices and good reasons why for picking. I was unfamiliar with The Speckled Monster, worth a look. Fighting apathy and laziness is a very worthwhile cause.

  8. Great picks for this meme! "The Speckled Monster" seems like one I really need to read! Did you read "The Ghost Map"? It has a similar theme -- about how a pastor and a doctor went against conventional thinking and practice, and figured out how cholera is transmitted.

  9. Great selection - and not just because I am a huge Dr. Seuss fan. Living so that you are "not making it any worse" seems like a great motto for Earth Day to me.

  10. Very unique, interesting, and great choices! Nice job!

    Plus your list is the only one I've seen that contains a book I can read in one lunchtime break (Suess)! :-)

  11. As I grew up in NoVa, I'm heartbroken about the statistics for Chesapeake Bay. It's such a wake up call; I wish more people would answer...

  12. Three very interesting and thought provoking choices. Hope your bay can be saved. If one person is aware and committed and they convince one other...

  13. Great post! It is hard enough to make personal choices, but it is much more difficult to influence others to change their thinking and habits.

  14. Sorry for my lateness to this post but I'm so glad you were able to participate. Your first book choice is wonderful. It was so interesting to see a book that wasn't gardening related but inspirational nonetheless. Recyling too hard? People will find any excuse won't they? Thank goodness there are teachers in schools willing to share with children another way of doing things.

  15. Jennifer@threedogsinagarden
    It was nice to discover the first book though your post- I have not heard of this one before. It sounds like great reading. Your choice of Dr Seuss was also interesting. He was certainly a pioneer environmentalist. I used to love to read his book aloud to my son. Have a great weekend!


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