Mid-Century America was the golden age of pesticides and it was love at first sight. Any thoughts about Earth Day and the environment lay far in the future.
Thousands of new chemicals were put to use in new and amazing products, quickly tested, and just as quickly rushed to market.
Now you could get relief for your garden the modern, speedy way. Pesticides. They’re easy! They’re quick! They’re automatic!
Why wait for old-fashioned organic nature to deal with pests, when there were new, fast working chemical compounds that went to work instantly.
“Today’s pesticides,” so the thinking went, “go right along with the sensible modern trend. Today’s relaxed people at ease with so many things.”
Pesticides belong- to the fun of living!
A Trip to the Suburban Garden Center
As spring exploded, mid-century Americans cut loose in the great outdoors. Like clockwork, my father and I joined the swarm of suburban gardeners who would flock to their local garden center on Mothers Day. For my family, Gardeners Village was the destination of choice.
In garden centers all over Long Island, you would find row upon row of pretty, terra-cotta potted geraniums and fetching baskets overflowing with petunias, prominently displayed as offerings for Mothers Day. At the eleventh hour, they were lifesavers for those last-minute husbands and sons who in their consternation of what to get Mom- perfume or another cotton housecoat, had thus far bought nothing.
Time For a Breather
As soon as you entered the nursery, nostrils were bombarded with a blast of the earthy, musky, smell of peat moss, humus, and topsoil, overpowered by the caustic odor of chemicals.
Ah, breathe deeply of the invigorating scent of power –chlorynated hydrocarbons.
My father was like a kid in a candy shop, his eyes bigger than our small suburban backyard.
Dad dashed quickly down the nursery aisles, pushing past the plants, speeding by the spades, and totally ignoring the calibrated spreaders and wobbly wheelbarrows in his single-minded pursuit. What Dad looked forward to the most was the appearance of this spring’s new line of pesticides and petrochemicals.
Chemicals as bright and fresh as spring itself.
Aisle after aisle, choice after choice, shelves groaning under the weight of giant jugs of herbicides, boxes of insecticides, cans of fungicides and bottles of pesticides, all shapes and sizes, some dusts and pellets, others emulsions and granules.
Miracle products all, with names such as Chlorodust, Toxiclor, Cook-Kill.
The miraculous herbicide 2,4-D (dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) was hailed as a breakthrough garden product when it was released in the late 1940s. Like most suburbanites, dad knew there was no longer any excuse for a weedy lawn.
He agonized over choice of weapons – should he go for the Martin Weed-Gun that came locked and loaded with a healthy supply of 2,4-D sufficient enough to kill ten thousand weeds or the nifty Killer Kane that squirted the same 2, 4-D herbicide killing weeds “as fast as you can walk.” To compound the decision there was the ever-popular suburban favorite Weed-a Bomb, courtesy of the Thompson Chemical Corporation.
Speaking of weapons, 2,4-D would later come in handy fighting the Vietnam War as the principal ingredient of the defoliant Agent Orange.
It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature
Dad may have claimed he had great respect for mothers in general, and Mom in particular, but the same couldn’t be said for Mother Nature. Mother Nature needed to be controlled. She was like a woman, fickle, stubborn but looking for a strong man to take control.
Though loath to admit it, my father had mother issues.
Not unlike his own mother, he regarded Mother Nature sometimes as a friend, and sometimes as an enemy. He loved her and resented her. Mother Nature was what he’d try to get away from, and yet he depended on her badly.
With Mother Nature he could act out his impulses and decisions freely, unchecked.
Formerly, Mother Nature, like his own mother, was more powerful than he. But now the balance had shifted. Man could control forces which at best rivaled and now seemed on the point of surpassing her.
“It was heartening to recognize some of the things our science is continuing to create and store up for the better world of tomorrow” Dad would read. “American laboratories can now promise us virtual independence from many ‘natural’ sources of necessities. Food, fodder, and fiber can now be grown without soil, without rain, without sunlight, virtually, “without Mother Nature herself!”
A clerk, dressed as a farmer in coveralls and a straw hat, was strolling around the nursery, spritzing samples of new herbicide 2,4-D for men to test.
Softly spraying some of the oily mist onto Dads wrist in order for him to sample, the Mr. Green Jeans -look-alike, tried to conjure up a bucolic image: “Experience the new aroma! Like the freshness of tingling bracing mountain air, it has a noticeable effect to all who partake. Hearts beat faster when you use it. Its clean crispness stimulates. A unique scent prolonger M-10, makes the aroma really last.”
Apparently, 1500 men tested other leading pesticides- and new, saucy, man-tailored formula2,4,-D Dichlorophenoxyacetic won hand down. “And,” the clerk winked to Dad, “their girls loved it! “
“Its total harmony with nature assures you of being tastefully right.”
Dad splurged and bought 3 containers.
Years later we would we learn it was associated with cancer, birth defects, kidney, and liver damage.
It was intoxicating!
Sally, then along came Rachel Carson and the river in Cleveland catching fire….Carson was a brave woman and took a lot of flak from male scientists from the chemical companies hired to denigrate her. But, once she started telling the truth for others to hear, people started listening. She also testified in front of Congress while she knew she was dying from a terminal illness. Keith
Thankfully, my parents never believed in using pesticides as weed killers. Instead, they paid my brother and me extra allowance each week, to get down on our hands and knees and yank weeds out of the ground with our trusty dowels. I did like that extra dollar or two I could earn, but I didn’t much like the sore knees I incurred with this chore (this was before the days of knee and elbow pads).