A mother's legacy called into question

By MARY ANN SWISSLER  |  Nov. 24, 2001 at 2:20 PM
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MAPLEWOOD, N.J., Nov. 24 (UPI) -- "Having Faith -- An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood,Ó by Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., Perseus Publishing, November 2001, 352 pages, ISBN: 0-7382-0467-6.

On average, a mother's pregnancy lasts nine months. But the biological legacy she passes on during any pregnancy and in the months of breast feeding following, last a lifetime.

In her second non-fiction book, "Having Faith -- An Ecologist's Journey into Motherhood," (November 2001, Perseus Books) scientist, journalist, poet and new mother Sandra Steingraber issues a serious warning about this legacy, from what she says is the rising contamination of mother's breast milk.

Her first non-fiction book, on environmental links to cancer, was "Living Downstream."

Steingraber combines a first-person narrative -- starting with her discovery she was pregnant while a biology lecturer at the same college where she lost her virginity at age 19 -- with a month-by-month chronology of the changes a woman's body undergoes during pregnancy.

To her credit, Steingraber transforms a book that could be as inviting to a new parent as a tale of contagious child abuse, into an empowering and cutting-edge piece of science literature for the New Millennium parent.

Interspersed with the personal journey taken with her life partner, are equally personal tales about recent scientific findings of environemntal toxins, and Steingraber's political involvement in bringing these pollutants into the light of day.

She turns out a book that is an emotional, "science for the people" -- something a reader of any scientific background can understand -- on an aspect of our humanity that is taken for granted: the safety of a mother's breast milk. It potentially is one of the most dangerous substances on earth, she writes, but unlike clean water we cannot turn to a bottled format for a safer substitute. Nor should we, according to the second part of Steingraber's book, where she details the physical and societal challenges of breast feeding.

She perseveres with breast feeding because although most medical studies over the past 30 years have reported toxic chemicals, including known cancer-causing agents DDT and PCBs, have found their way into breast milk, breast-fed infants fare better than those fed through bottled formula. Talk about a no-win situation entering the already loaded ground of mother's guilt.

In one of many passages about the love which helps surmount these odds, Steingraber writes:

"My physical connection with (daughter) Faith is re-established and reconfigured. Eight to 10 times a day -- and into the night -- we two become one again. ... She and I enter a little bubble of our own making ... We figured it out, you and I. First we came through the birth, and now we've learned the tango."

Steingraber herself survived a bout of cancer in her early 20s. Yet, she transcends this pain into poetic knowledge of literature, as opposed to the easy, political discourse of the angry and the victimized.

Not an easy row to hoe. Steingraber wears many hats, and she brings these skills to bear in a sort of ecological mix of science information, a new mother's diary, political observations -- and finally, literary prose.

Chapter 7, "Hay Moon," is the high-point for this writer's highly readable style that combines the scientific with the literate. Here she describes the central danger to breast milk, recounting her life as a pregnant, married, activist-expert headed toward an Alaskan village where the Alaska Community Action on Toxics is investigating environmental contam äination in its midst. Here, Steingraber describes "persistent organic pollutants," or POPs in a way not often found by reporters or in science texts.

At times, "Having Faith" reads a bit like "More than you ever wanted to know about breast milk and embryo development" and seems destined more for new parents than anyone else. But, if nothing else, the exquisite prose keeps one's eye on the page.

Each page contains a standout sample where Steingraber is able to draw in and keep the reader through the sheer humanity of her subject matter. For example, before a presentation at a United Nations conference, infant daughter Faith in tow, Steingraber writes:

"Fortunately, I'm early. My breasts are aching because I haven't nursed Faith since dawn, so I head for the women's (bathroom) to pump. Before I pour the half cup of expressed milk into the toilet, I hesitate, as I always do. Breast milk may be the most contaminated human food on the planet, but it's still Holy Water to a mother. That's when it occurs to me: probably most of those drafting this treaty have never before seen human milk. I screw the lid on the jar and put it back in my book bag."

Steingraber then recalls how she passed the jar around the room, as if an adult version of show-and-tell. A tall act of bravery, by anyone's testament. She continues, "Then I begin talking about the food chain."

Perhaps someday Dr. Sandra Steingraber will be named U.S. poet laureate. Strange title for an environmentalist, biology professor, award-winning science reporter, and a former Ms. Magazine "Woman of the Year."

But these are complicated times and Steingraber, also a published poet, could be the writer to bring some clarity to the tangled emotional web surrounding what was once a clear and unfettered beacon in American poetry: Nature as a vehicle toward transcendental thought. A vast, pristine environment as a vehicle to a greater understanding of God and humanity.

This is the territory of early American naturalist writers Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and John Muir, to whom Steingraber has been compared. Yet, with today's mix of political considerations -- oil rights, corporate survival versus toxic manufacturing emissions, land preservation versus housing demands -- like-minded writers like Thoreau, Whitman or Muir would be hard-pressed nowadays to churn out anything resembling the romanticism which made them famous.

So imagine taking on their legacy -- intentionally or not. Yet, that's what Steingraber has done in her career, most notably in "Having Faith."

When she calls breast feeding "a very exquisite communion between myself and my child" as well as a transfer of dangerous toxic chemicals, Steingraber resembles a modern-day Thoreau spilling out his sorrow about a soiled Walden Pond.

Unfortunately for Steingraber, she's coming of age in the the post-Industrial age where the magical fruits of modernization have also brought about a frightening number of cancer risks, along with powerful lobbying interests intent on squelching these dangers from public knowledge.

Hope lies, then, in having faith in the power of small but determined groups of enlightened parents like herself.

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