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A Book, a Story, and a Knock-Knock Joke or Two

Simmons B. Buntin reviews Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, by Sandra Steingraber

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, by Sandra SteingraberAfter poet, ecologist, and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber published Living Downstream in 1998, she was hailed as the next Rachel Carson. Her research was impeccable, insight keen, and call-to-action true. Five years later she published Having Faith, a memoir that braids Sandra’s pregnancy, childbirth, and the first few months of her daughter Faith’s life with fetal toxicology—the “intimate ecology of motherhood.” While the book reveals the extent to which environmental hazards threaten every stage of infant development, it is also filled with lyrical prose and a moving childbirth scene that remains with me even six years after I read it.

Sandra’s third book of nonfiction, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, would then seem to be the logical extension of the first two books, both in memoir and science. And it is. Yet it is much more, because where Having Faith shifted dramatically and sometimes disconcertingly between science and memoir, Raising Elijah braids the two seamlessly, resulting in a book that is at once fascinating and frightening, lyrical and logical, funny and powerful.

It is Sandra’s finest work so far, I think, and scores of other reviewers agree: “Raising Elijah is a call to arms, a cry for the moral solidarity that we must forge to prevent environmental degradation and its assault on children’s health,” writes Ms., while the U.K.’s The Ecologist calls it “one of the most important books you’ll ever read.” And it is. Raising Elijah is required reading for those of us who have children. “In Raising Elijah I call for outspoken, full-throated heroism in the face of the great moral crisis of our own day: the environmental crisis,” she writes. “And, because the main victims of this unfolding calamity are our own children, the book speaks directly to parents.” I’d argue, however, that the book should be required reading for those who don’t have children, as well. But then, I’m biased.

A disclaimer: I know Sandra Steingraber. I know Elijah. I’ve listened to his jokes and told him a few of my own. So what I’d like to do here is skip the traditional review format and recall how I spent a lovely Vermont week with Sandra and Elijah, and how that experience reveals to me that Raising Elijah is a true and essential extension of the author and her family—indeed, an extension of all parents and their families. I’ll reference some of the writing in the book as I go along, but I’m not sure I can convince you to read the book any more than I already have. Or as young Elijah himself might say, “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Boo.” “Boo who?” “There’s no need to cry about what you’re missing: get the book and read it!”

It wasn’t long after I finished reading Having Faith that I first contacted Sandra. My hope was to convince her to send an essay to Terrain.org. While she wasn’t able to submit, she did agree to sit for an interview (electronically speaking), which gave me the opportunity to read more of her work. Those who have conducted the research necessary for a comprehensive interview—or who perhaps are private investigators—know that it’s akin to stalking, for you not only read what the author has written, but read other work about the author, looking for linkages and different perspectives. It’s a nosy business, really, and I’m not a nosy guy. But here’s the thing: Sandra’s story is so compelling, her writing so deep and lovely and scary, that I felt far less like prying than discovering. What I discovered—like so many who already knew her work—is that Sandra Steingraber is a beacon, one filled with humility and passion and providence. Which is to say, we need her wisdom and voice, now more than ever.

I finally heard Sandra’s voice in person after the interview was published (read it here), on the first afternoon of the Wildbranch Writing Workshop in northern Vermont. I had come to study under Scott Russell Sanders, and Sandra was one of the other faculty members (along with Janisse Ray and David Abram). I was surprised, however, to meet Elijah, all of about seven years old, though I shouldn’t have been. Surely a mother who had written intimately about her daughter Faith would be just as close with her son and, everyone in agreement, bring him along.

By the end of the weeklong workshop, where participants explored the lush rolling countryside as much as they explored their own writing, I struck up a friendship with Elijah. I particularly remember spending a free afternoon with him on the commons, at Craftsbury Common, teetering along the whitewashed fence, shuffling through the shin-high grass, playing swords with the shed boughs of evergreens. Here was an energetic boy eager for some attention—maybe we both were.

The next day, at the farewell barbecue, I joined Elijah as he sat alone on a hill overlooking that hazy green Vermont landscape, his mother mingling with the four dozen other participants. His mood was gray, like the rainy mornings every day that week. I thought perhaps he was sad because he was leaving. “No,” he said, fiddling with his shoelaces. “My mom is mad at me because I stuck my hand in the pond.” In truth, he’d nearly fallen in altogether. But I was sad even if Elijah wasn’t. Gatherings like Wildbranch, swift as they may be, create a kind of sacred space, and when someone energetic and elfin like Elijah joins in, that space expands in delightful and unexpected ways.

Those sacred spaces are also an escape from the harsh, who-knows-the-cause-but-we-definitely-feel-the-effect realities of the communities we inhabit every day. These realities and interconnections are at the heart of Raising Elijah, indicated in chapter names like “The Grocery List (and the Ozone Hole)” and “Bicycles on Main Street (and High-Volume Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing)”. These relationships, Sandra notes, are inundated by toxic chemicals that leach away the opportunity for children to experience their own sacred spaces—whether on the corner lot, atop the kitchen floor, or around a play structure.

To read not so much about but rather with Elijah, years later and through Sandra’s eyes, brought me back to our brief time together, giving broader and richer context to the small sliver of family life I saw there. Of course, knowing the author and her son is by no means essential to appreciating this book. Sandra tells us right from the get-go what it’s about:

In Raising Elijah I seek a path out of that despair. This book is not about shopping differently. Indeed, it rejects altogether the notion that toxicity should be a consumer choice. Instead, it seeks the higher ground of human rights in which to explore systemic solutions to the ongoing chemical contamination of our children and our biosphere. And because I believe that stories move us to action more than data alone, the scientific evidence is strapped to the hood of an autobiographical tale that begins with the birth of my son and spans the first nine years of my life as a biologist mother of two.

It’s a path as winding and overgrown as any in northern Vermont, yet one cleared by Sandra’s distinct lyrical prose and concise scientific reason.

After I returned from the trails of Vermont, all of Elijah’s jokes on my mind, I searched for some he hadn’t heard before. One in particular stood out, so I forwarded it to Sandra, who shared it with her son:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
Duane who?
Duane the bathtub, I’m dwowning!

Raising Elijah reveals just how close we are to drowning if we don’t reprioritize and resolve to “lie down in front of the trucks,” as one gentleman at a public meeting about fracking in Sandra’s hometown says in the book. But the book is also about hope, recognizing the potential in community, organic food, renewable energy, and much more. Recognizing, indeed, the need to bring back our sacred space.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis

By Sandra Steingraber

   De Capo Press
   368 pages
   ISBN 978-0738213996


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