Global Province Letter: Blowin’ in the Wind: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
June 2, 2010

                       Now laughing friends deride,
                       Tears I cannot hide,
                       So I smile and say,
                       When a lovely flame dies,
                       Smoke gets in your eyes.
                                   ---from Jerome Kern’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Blowin’ in the Wind.  We think it was in the fifties when a small snippet in some newspaper blithely noted that the last clean place in the country had gotten dirty.  The town probably was Flagstaff, Arizona. Pollution-free up to then, it, too, had been invaded by carbon compounds and the other noxious chemicals that plug up our heads and shorten our lives. Flagstaff is pretty high up (7,000 feet), so the air is always thin. Just 12 miles away is Humphreys Peak, at 12,633 feet, the highest point in Arizona.  With the arrival of wayward fumes, one just had to gulp even harder to breathe. One quarter of a mile running in a Flagstaff or Cripple Creek can do in any urban jogger accustomed to sea level atmospheres.

All about Arizona the air has lost its magic.  Sixty years ago a mother with allergy prone children might move to Phoenix to free her children from asthma attacks.  Since then, settlers have planted the wrong sort of trees—mulberries and olives—turning paradise into a pollen-laden wheeze bowl.

In Arizona and elsewhere homeowners and architects people their structures with all sorts of climate control devices. They don’t do a whole lot of good, because the air about our land is a mess.  Bob Dylan’s song of the early sixties told us that there are a lot of answers Blowin’ in the Wind.  But maybe not quite the answers he had in mind. What’s blowing in the wind is a lot of stuff, so much so that it’s hard to taste pure air or have clear thoughts.  For this reason, Dylan’s song is better heard from Marlene Dietrich whose rendition is both more haunting and more beautiful, and who better registers the grander conflicts of man and his planet in the 20th century.

Air Conditioned Nightmare.  That said, the air inside your house is worse than the air outside, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Even as we strive to do something about air pollution through a variety of societal measures (electric cars, energy conservation, alternate energy production, etc.), it behooves us to get things straight in our own pasture.  That’s not so easy.  Noxious chemicals are embedded in modern building materials and are particularly abundant in modern carpeting which not only is made from unhealthy ingredients but is skilled at capturing the sundry fumes and bugs and other detritus that may be coursing through your household.

A serial entrepreneur of our acquaintance, Stan Brannan, is now in the air purifier business, turning out FDA-worthy filtration at his Purifan.  It’s not our intent here to do an advertisement for his wares.  But, in an imperfect world, cased as we are in our far-from-perfect houses, we would seem well advised to follow his logic.  There’s just a whole lot of unfriendly stuff creeping around our baseboards.  The best present hope in our homes and in our buildings is to completely dump the bad air in a room frequently and replenish it with cool, clean, oxygenated currents.   He would say to us that the test of air purifier systems is how frequently they accomplish just this task.

In 1945, returning from Europe, the author Henry Miller took an auto trip about the United States to reconnect with his homeland.  As one critic remarks, his Air Conditioned Nightmare, where he wrote about his life on the road, captures the nation’s “tragic-comic failings.”  The title was oddly prescient.  For our homes are riddled with comforts, yet they are intrinsically unhealthy and uneconomic, in several senses, for the nation.  It’s a tough slog to do something about the nation, but we can go about making friendly castles out of our beleaguered homes.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  Then, you may ask, what’s to be done that goes beyond the big fix that Brannan proposes? There’s a laundry list of little things that can make a difference.  Here are a few:

  1. Open the windows.  Despite our rant about air pollution, frequent airing-outs of the house do help. 
  2. Use lots of venting fans.  Heat-activated fans in the attic help.  Make sure your fan over your kitchen stove actually vents to the outside since many builders simply channel the air into crawl spaces.
  3. Do power vacuuming.  Four to five successive vacuuming sessions with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter-equipped vacuum cleaner, at a rate of one minute per square metre for carpets and half a minute for non-carpeted areas, is required to significantly reduce the amount of fine dust.  Extreme vacuuming is vital for those with significant allergies.
  4. Change furnace and air conditioner filters frequently.
  5. Think about better rugs—or no rugs.
  6. Take off your shoes.  Surprising amounts of dirt and microbes come in on your clodhoppers.
  7. Install air friendly plants inside and outside your house.  Here are 15 plants that are supposed to help.  As well, one should cultivate long-term hardwoods on one’s property, replacing the woods lazy developers destroy.  Treeless landscapes are particularly a problem in newer developments since they set the stage for flooding, dust storms, and worse. Trees are critical.
  8. Store toxic compounds, such as paints, somewhere else. 

The sum of our daily activities stirs up a lot of heat, and adventure, and accomplishment.  But there’s a residue—smoke and dust and charred remains.  It pays up to deal with it, or life turns to dross.  For after all the fun and games, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

P.S.  The link above will take you to Jerry Garcia’s version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.  Few of us knew that Garcia was named after Jerome Kern, the composer.

P.P.S.  We learn that at least one Frenchman is building a castle to thwart the present day.  See “Frenchman Builds a Dream Château on a Grand Estate in the Ozarks.”

P.P.P.S.  Marlene asks, too, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?  Many memories have been devoured by modernity.

P.P.P.P.S.  Despite the obvious intransigence of our utilities and our petroleum companies, America’s largest companies are making the transition to a greener economy.  Ecoimagination, GE’s somewhat ham-fisted way of headlining its environmental push, identifies its broad energy and environmental initiative.  Wal-Mart is pushing a lot more than low-energy light bulbs, although it could do much more through initiatives to train its consumers in frugal ways and to offer more case lot options, which could drive down prices and trim down packaging.  Wal-Mart now proposes to pick up goods from its suppliers which could, if done correctly, result in huge economies and in some further revival of rail transport. This green transformation of the corporation might even bring it closer in purpose to what it was in its beginnings—a joint stock company that served country and capitalist alike.

P.P.P.P.P.S. The germs that affect us often were here before man made himself known on the planet—and will be around long after mankind has become a memory.  That’s much the case with the crittur that causes Lyme disease, as we learn from Arno Karlen’s Biography of a Germ. With smog and dust and germs and all the other pests posed by nature that drift around in the air, we must find a way to co-exist, since we have no real hope of ridding our homes or our planet of these nano enemies.



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