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Some blessings carry heavy costs
Now and Then
roger branch

Sometime in late 1944 or early 1955, men from some agency came to our family home in Toombs County and sprayed it thoroughly with a new chemical. It reduced the number of flies and mosquitoes and gloriously wiped out bed bugs.

It was an old house built in the 1870s by my father’s oldest uncle. The original room was of logs set on beams resting on tall pillars of heart pine. Boards inside and out covered the lines where logs met, or mostly met. Later, three other rooms and a kitchen were added using sawn lumber, weather boards only. The many cracks and crevices in all that wood were home to all sorts of creatures, the most devilish being bed bugs (AKA chinches) that infested beds to inflict blood-sucking bites on sleepers. Mother was vigilant but never sure that her protective measures had worked.

Then came the spray called DDT. It got the chinches for her and worked so well on other insects that it was widely applied. However, it also affected other things and joined with agricultural pesticides to enter the food chain of birds, killing them outright or thinning the shells of their eggs so that they collapsed before hatching. Less than 20 years later Rachel Carson published, “Silent Spring,” which alerted the world to the demise of many birds and the silencing of their songs. I have not seen a sparrow hawk or night hawk in years and I rarely hear a chuck-wills-widow (southern variant of the whippoorwill).

In the spring of 1945, a friend of my parents named Troy Slater came to our place and built a new house. He was just moving on from farming to construction and was an able builder. (Side note: 12 years later he became my father-in-law.) The new house had some marvelous building materials. There was no wood on the inner walls and ceiling; sheetrock and Celotex instead. Outside walls and roof were covered with large shingles of asbestos, white walls and gray roof. Walls did not weather like wood. Roofs were fire-proof and long-lasting, unlike wooden shingles.

Much later it was discovered that asbestos fibers could cause cancer if inhaled or otherwise ingested. However, Mr. Troy, who built many houses with asbestos walls and roofs, including his own, lived 105 years plus with no sign of cancer. My parents lived in that house for over 50 years and never had cancer, dying as true elders — he at 86 and she at 103. Perhaps the explanation is that the surface of the shingles was sealed so that fibers did not float free in their home.

Agricultural chemicals certainly were and are mixed blessings. Herbicides ended the human drudgery of destroying weeds and grass with hoes and repeated plowing. Some farmers now plant new crops in the stubble of the previous ones, called “no till cultivation”. It saves on fuel, equipment wear and reduces the erosion of soil exposed by other ways of land preparation. What is the down side? By now we know that no chemical is totally harmless to other things than those involved in its immediate purpose. What is certain is that the human need for food and fiber cannot be met without modern farming technologies.

One agricultural chemical, ammonium nitrate, is both valuable and dangerous. All bladed plants — corn, small grains, even onions — require a lot of nitrogen to be productive. In the old days, it was a major part of fertilizer inserted under seed at planting and applied again in granular form as side-dressing at “lay by” (last cultivation).

Ammonium nitrate is a liquid that is carried in a large tank on a tractor. Hoses convey it to the tool bar from which it is injected into the soil at planting or as side-dressing.

It is very potent and can be dangerous to careless farmers.

The great danger is that ammonium nitrate can be made into bombs. In large concentrations, it can bring down buildings, like the federal building in Oklahoma City. As a smaller unit combined with nails, etc., as shrapnel, it can rip into bodies of people in a crowded place as in the case of the Boston Marathon bombing.

Mass produced for agricultural use, it is impossible to regulate or track. It is almost everywhere and can be misdirected or stolen from thousands of legitimate manufacturers and dealers in this country and scores of others. As a chief explosive ingredient in a roadside bomb in Iraq or Pakistan, it can rip apart the body of a young man who would much prefer to be using it to grow corn in Kansas or Georgia.

Indeed, some blessings become banes.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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