If Not Us, Who?

PattyMara Gourley, Tierra Nueva, Oceano, California

When we citizens feel like we’re up against a brick wall in the form of bureaucracy or corporate domination, we sometimes lose our sense of empowerment. Not so at Tierra Nueva, whose members drilled an exit hole in the brick wall and marched full speed ahead.

—D. L. W.

Tierra Nueva Cohousing holds the distinction of being one of the first cohousing groups in the nation. Our founding members formed our group in San Luis Obispo County, California, in 1988. As pioneers in the new cohousing movement, we were faced with high-risk financial challenges, land-title complications, and the task of convincing our county planners and fearful neighbors that cohousing was the wave of the future. But we didn’t know in those early years that our biggest challenge still lay ahead of us.

While other early groups moved more quickly through their development, design, and construction phases, we plodded along, meeting each new barrier or “project breaker” with dogged determination, honing our skills of communication, collaboration, and consensus. The early families leaned into one another for encouragement through those dark days and shared the plain stubborn notion of “We’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now!”

A full ten years after the group formed, in the summer of 1998, the first families of our twenty-seven households began moving into our homes. We built our passive solar homes in the heart of a five-acre organic avocado orchard near the small town of Oceano on the central California coast. We settled into our new lives with relief and delight. I remember thinking at the time, “Surely the difficult work is done. Now comes the easy part!” Then strange things began to happen.

The same month my family moved into our new home, my “other mother,” Marya, a beloved elder of our community, died suddenly from an asthma attack while she was walking through the orchard to visit her home site. We gathered in shock around the tree where she took her last labored breath and grieved her passing with a candlelight memorial service. We did not know then that her death was only the first of many mysterious illnesses and deaths that would haunt Tierra Nueva Cohousing community.

In the bittersweet haze of our grief and our joy, we cooked nourishing meals for one another, planted gardens, threw parties, and tended our organic orchard. Through trial and error, tears and laughter, we became more closely connected with each other and with the universe we all inhabit.

More than half of our community residents had moved from other cities and states. Adjusting to the new climate took some time. Those with seasonal allergies experienced the effect of unfamiliar pollen, but felt no relief when the seasons changed. Our meetings and meals began to be punctuated by odd, dry, persistent coughing. Chronic headaches and flu symptoms became common complaints.

After months of puzzling allergies and digestive discomfort, Carol, another community resident, was diagnosed with stage-four cancer, which had spread from an unknown source in her body. Within three months, she was gone. Even then, we did not make the connection that many more of us were being poisoned by an unknown source. After all, we were living in the midst of an organic orchard, eating homegrown, nourishing foods, living healthy lifestyles in the community of our dreams.

And then Leah Rose, a sturdy seven-year-old, started coughing that same dry cough that wouldn’t go away. During a night of wheezing, she told her mom and dad, “I have a ball in my throat!” as she struggled to breathe. After weeks of frightening symptoms, she was diagnosed with asthma. By the autumn months of 2001, it was finally becoming disturbingly clear to us that something dreadful was amiss.

A prime suspect in the mystery surrounding our illnesses was the picturesque strawberry farm that Leah Rose could see from her upstairs window. This thirty-acre farm that borders our land was being fumigated and sprayed with a cocktail mix of toxic pesticides and herbicides. One of them, the infamous methyl bromide, was determined by the Montreal Protocol International Agreement to be damaging the ozone layer of the Earth’s atmosphere and was slated for an eventual worldwide ban. But meanwhile, down on the ground, Leah Rose had a ball in her throat and an alarming number of us were suffering increasing respiratory illnesses, skin rashes, headaches, flu-like symptoms, and mental disorientation.

We were getting and staying sick, and we weren’t the only ones. We learned that other neighbors from surrounding residential areas had been complaining for more than a decade of symptoms associated with pesticide-drift poisoning. A dedicated small group of these neighbors had successfully convinced the county Public Health Commission to sponsor a public meeting about the strawberry field’s affect on the neighborhoods. When Karl Kempton, our neighborhood poet-activist, contacted us about the meeting, we readily agreed to participate.

More than 100 people attended the meeting, which the county health commissioner opened by giving extensive time to the Agricultural Commission and the local growers and brokers. At long last, when the microphone was finally opened to the public, Michael Kaplan spoke eloquently about his daughter, Leah Rose, experiencing her first asthma attack and the frightening weeks of symptoms before diagnosis and treatment. Others described their illnesses that followed each spraying and fumigation of the field. Nurses from the area reported growing statistics of respiratory diseases. Long-time residents, including Karl, spoke of the same symptoms they had been complaining about for nearly fifteen years with little response from governmental officials.

The next day, we read a newspaper article about the meeting, and then, silence fell. The Health Commission had formed a Pesticide Task Force to investigate the complaints, but how much would that help Leah’s hacking and wheezing in the middle of the night? At our next business meeting, Michael announced his intention to write a letter of complaint to the owners of the strawberry farm, a theosophical community named Halcyon. In true cohousing style, discussion arose from the group and Michael was challenged to form a committee first, with the gentle suggestion that we couldn’t complain about the problem without also offering to help create a solution.

We formed Neighbors at Risk (NAR) as a coalition of neighborhoods that surround the strawberry farm. In our first flyer we described ourselves as “ordinary citizens wondering why we were getting sick.” Our prior environmental work consisted more in writing donation checks to groups such as Greenpeace than in direct action. But all that changed when we started getting sick, and the county agencies that we thought were looking out for our heath seemed to be more attentive to the big business of agriculture.

What began as a simple wish to write a letter of complaint grew over the next year into a wildly successful grassroots citizen coalition that broke new ground in our county and in the state. As ordinary citizens new to the complexities of pesticide drift politics and science, we sought and received help from a state organization named Pesticide Watch as well as our local environmental council, the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County (ECOSLO). They helped us focus our efforts into a cohesive campaign with clear goals. We decided to launch a two-pronged campaign involving a public outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods and a more private interaction with the owners of the field.

We NAR members perceived our mission in very basic terms: we hoped to unite the extended neighborhoods by sharing information about pesticide drift, mastering the complicated complaint process required by county and state agricultural regulations, and devising an early-alert network for neighbors before each new spraying or fumigation. We believed that if we all paid attention to how we and our families were feeling in the days following each pesticide application, then carefully logged and accurately reported all the illnesses, we would become impossible to ignore.

The skills we had practiced over the long years of development, design, and construction of our cohousing community served us well in our new role as activists. We incorporated our meeting structure and facilitation style into the NAR committee meetings and made sure that everyone felt heard and acknowledged for their previous efforts, particularly those neighbors who had lived here long before our cohousing community was built. Our years of practice with consensus gave us the organizational tools to build a coalition of diverse interests, and our years of marketing Tierra Nueva—presenting informational slide shows, creating brochures and press releases to attract new members—also served us well in our campaign.

Our next step would be to canvass the surrounding four neighborhoods that bordered the field and invite them to a community gathering in our common house. Amy Leach had spent time in college canvassing for a statewide environmental organization, and based on that experience, she wrote a summary statement for the canvass teams that enabled us to conduct an informal health survey. Every day of canvassing revealed a growing list of diseases, whole cul-de-sacs of cancers as well as alarming incidents of miscarriages and birth defects. Everyone we spoke with had a story of illness or death. In light of this sobering information, we decided that our first gift to the neighborhood would be to simply listen to everyone’s story.

Candia Varni, a new neighbor who had purchased Carol’s home after her death, had begun to experience reoccurring skin rashes. Candia agreed to take on the gigantic task of “doing the science” of pesticide drift. She researched and described the symptoms of exposure for each of the chemicals being used on the strawberry farm and compiled numerous fact sheets to help inform the neighborhood about the realities of pesticide drift. One of these papers described the procedure our doctors would have to follow to report suspected exposures, which she had learned firsthand after her agonizing skin outbreaks. She had to educate her doctor on how to fill out the form in a way that would fulfill the requirements of state pesticide regulators. We planned to make Candia’s information available to all our neighbors.

In the days preceding that first April gathering in our common house, tensions were building. The big business of agriculture wields powerful influences in our county. How could a ragtag group of neighbors make enough changes to keep our children and ourselves safe? One day, I sat in our meditation garden that overlooks the strawberry fields, struggling with the paradox that this farm’s sacred soil could become so menacing a danger. I knew we needed help of a different nature.

I began to think of all my neighbors reporting their illnesses and imagined a line of light flowing through each one’s heart, encircling the field. No longer menacing, the sacred soil of the land became my ally, energizing my efforts and sustaining my vision. Every day after that one, I silently linked hearts with my neighbors and the soil and its guardian spirits.

On the evening of our gathering, thirty people showed up. I opened the meeting by suggesting that we acknowledge the suffering we all had experienced by listening to one another tell our stories. I began by describing Marya’s asthma attack that ended her life under one of our avocado trees. Michael spoke of Leah Rose’s ball in her throat. The stories continued to flow around the circle. Two adult sisters spoke of their parents’ deaths from different cancers, of sick and dying neighbors up and down their block. Another woman spoke of her life-threatening struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, her son’s asthma, and her husband’s allergies. She hadn’t connected the dots until that night. She wondered out loud if the pesticide drift might be a factor in all their diseases. Others reported of having to sell their homes and move away in order to regain their health.

We listened, we recorded each story, and we handed out piles of Candia’s fact sheets. We passed around the e-mail-and-telephone early-notification list, promising everyone we would keep in touch. Then we served platters of organic strawberries, a symbolic gesture, to emphasize the nourishing possibilities of growing wholesome food on a farm without harm. By the end of the evening, we no longer felt isolated and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the tasks ahead. By listening to and acknowledging each person’s story, we forged a mighty coalition of heart connection with one another.

In the next eight months, we worked on strategies, wrote press releases, and created a Web site. Following our intention to work cooperatively rather than with confrontation, we invited the agricultural commissioner and the field inspectors to our common house to present their perspective and answer our questions. They agreed to work with the farmer to give us a twenty-four-hour prior notice for all sprayings and fumigations, which averaged once or twice a month during the growing season.

Before each application, we contacted all the neighbors by e-mail or telephone to remind them to close their windows, keep pets indoors, and be aware of any change in their health. When I made the calls, I became especially fond of one of the elderly neighbors who lived directly adjacent to the field. During our third conversation, she revealed that her husband had recently died of cancer and she had just begun to make the connection that perhaps the pesticides were the cause. We shared a sad moment of silence together. My last phone call to her was answered with a recorded message that she had left the area.

The agricultural department agreed to conduct an expensive scientific sampling to test if drift was occurring. Though the test results were positive, their official response was less than encouraging. They determined the positive results to be “insignificant.” The agricultural department ignored the fact that all drift is illegal and chose to advocate for the farm owners rather than the farmworkers and the neighbors who breathe the deadly drift clouds. We also learned from them that the official complaints we were submitting would take years to be analyzed by the state’s pesticide regulatory bureaucracy.

Based on the gruesome results of our early canvassing, ECOSLO was awarded a grant for an official public health survey through researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. Tierra Nueva’s common house was used to stage the canvass teams and NAR volunteers walked the streets knocking on doors and asking survey questions. Preliminary hospital statistics revealed elevated birth anomalies in the town of Oceano, which is home to many farmworkers. In addition, the county epidemiologist studied local hospital records that revealed significantly higher levels of asthma, pneumonia, pleurisy, and male urinary tract cancers.

Concurrent with our public outreach, NAR made plans for a more private interaction with the owners of the field, the Halcyon Temple. We worked on creating a new vision for sustainable farming practices as an alternative to the monocrop factory farming. We informally named our vision “farm without harm” and set about developing a relationship of communication and trust with the Halcyon community’s Temple officers, including the Temple’s guardian and chief, Eleanor Shumway. We compiled packets of information to present to her, describing alternatives to conventional agricultural practices. We also gave her Michael Ableman’s excellent book On Good Land, which describes Fairview Farm in Goleta, about ninety miles south of Tierra Nueva. This successful urban farm, completely surrounded by suburban development, grows nourishing organic produce without the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

In ongoing meetings with Shumway, we gradually earned her trust and cooperation. Her deep loyalties to the local farmer who had leased the fields for many years was tempered with her increasing dedication to our vision of a farm without harm. It resonated deeply with the Temple teachings of stewardship of the land.

Nearly a year after NAR’s formation, the Temple officially announced its intention to sustainably farm the thirty-acre field with “sensitivity to the farmworkers, neighbors, and the land itself.” In March of 2003, the Temple announced their selection of a local farmer, Jerry Rutiz, as the new farmer whose methods would be sustainable. All the neighborhoods surrounding the field breathed sighs of relief and shouts of jubilation.

But just when we thought we were no longer neighbors at risk, we were directly exposed to pesticides in broad daylight. Sprayings and fumigations normally take place in the middle of the night, when no wind is present and most people are asleep. But on a clear, windy afternoon in March, twelve Tierra Nueva children and six adults were rehearsing our spring equinox play in the meditation garden that overlooks the strawberry field. We were startled by the growl of a large tractor spray rig rumbling toward us, driven by a man in a full chemical-protection suit. Immediately we smelled a sharp chemical odor and tasted an acrid bitterness in our throats. One of the parents of the children who was standing at the fence yelled “They are spraying now!” I directed all of the children to run up the path away from the field and into their homes. My many urgent phone calls finally resulted in the dispatching of an agricultural inspector, who called me from the field after he interviewed the spray rig driver. The inspector listened to my report of the direct exposure of our twelve children and six adults, heard the terror in my voice, and acknowledged the unusual circumstances of the daylight spray with windy conditions. Then he dropped a bombshell.

The farmer insisted that only water was being sprayed when the tractor was driving by our garden. They were only testing the rig.

I realized then that the field inspector was choosing to believe the farmer, not us. I begged him to do a drift test, and he agreed to try to get permission from his supervisor. Permission was denied to run the tests.

When we reported that a neighbor had taken photographs of the tractor rig spraying close to our land, the officials finally agreed to test for drift, but when the weeks piled up with no official response, I was reminded of the mantra we repeated in the early days of building our dream of cohousing: “We’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now!”

I believe it was our training in the community politics of cohousing that empowered us to work effectively with various state and county offices to create better methods of reporting pesticide exposures and receiving immediate assistance from county public health agencies. It wasn’t enough to be heading out of the shadow of pesticides ourselves; we wanted to help reduce the risks for all others who also lived near farms.

In May of 2003, Tierra Nueva hosted a huge organic potluck feast, inviting all the neighborhoods to come celebrate the new “farm without harm” and meet farmer Jerry and his family. We feasted on wild Alaskan salmon, fresh vegetables from Jerry’s current farm, and a staggering variety of organic casseroles, salads, breads, desserts, and free-trade organic coffee. More than 100 guests stuffed themselves into the common house, dancing and singing together to live music provided by Halcyon troubadours. Jerry spoke to us about his plans for replenishing the sterilized soil with compost, growing a variety of food crops and flowers without toxic chemicals and working toward building a Community Supported Agriculture operation. We lingered long that night, moving from group to group in a daze, enjoying the distinct feeling that this was just the beginning of something marvelous.

The juiciest fruit harvested from NAR’s year of activism was the promise of the new farm. Encouraged by the new farmer’s vision, I am imagining a fruit-and-vegetable stand at the edge of the field with a colorful cafe serving organic coffees and fresh-baked lemon-walnut scones. As an educational demonstration farm for the community, tours will gather and learn about the magic of growing whole foods. On summer evenings, Karl can read his poems to us in the cafe, while we pass around heaping platters of organic veggies and Tierra Nueva guacamole. As shareholders in the farm’s harvest, we will collect our weekly bags of fruit, veggies, and flowers. At harvest time, we will gather in gratitude, gleaning the fields for the local food bank.

Foremost in my vision is Leah Rose, and all of our children, looking out their windows and seeing a patchwork quilt of colorful crops growing from sacred soil, wriggling with the healthy organisms of living earth. Above the farm, wind currents will carry purified air to Leah’s window. Below the ground, the underground water sources will return to their crystalline purity, no longer saturated with agricultural chemicals. Our nearby creek’s habitat will steadily improve and the native steelhead trout will swim upstream once again to spawn.

The heart connections that flow through Tierra Nueva and surrounding neighborhoods that circle the farm will sustain us for lifetimes if they are nourished with fellowship. After all, we’ve made it this far, we can’t stop now.

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